The non-campaign for Proposal M

Push to decriminalize small amounts of weed in Detroit finds little opposition

Oct 17, 2012 at 12:00 am

Maybe anti-Proposal M forces were out this past weekend campaigning. Maybe they're crashing the phones on radio talk shows this week. Maybe, with less than three weeks before the election, they got loudspeakers and made their voices heard. Well, that's what Lawrence Kenyatta, co-chair of the advocacy committee at the Partnership for a Drug Free Detroit, hoped would happen.

"We are going to step our game up so that we will be prepared to educate Detroiters on the negative effects this will have on the city of Detroit," says Kenyatta. "It's an all-hands-on-deck call to action that will basically consist of soldiers who are in treatment facilities. We're mobilizing our troops."

The Partnership opposed the little-known Detroit medical marijuana law that passed in 2004. Whatever effort they put forth this year will be done by volunteers. Kenyatta says they are fighting on a "very low budget" — basically contributions from "prevention providers" as they call themselves.

Proposal M, which would allow the possession and use of as much as 1 ounce of marijuana by adults 21-and-over on private property in Detroit, is on the Nov. 6 ballot. There is nothing in the proposal about where adults can procure marijuana, but there doesn't seem to be much lack of access to the currently illegal substance.

The surprise for me is that I haven't heard much pro or con about Proposal M. With a presidential election on tap, Senate and House races, and several statewide proposals on the ballot, Proposal M is not getting a lot of attention. 

A couple of weeks ago, the Partnership for a Drug Free Detroit, a coalition of 31 prevention providers, held a rally at the Mack Alive Community Resource Center and invited substance abuse recovery groups and religious leaders to speak. A news report said fewer than 50 people attended. That says a lot about the lack of traction on this issue.

"Of all the community groups that I deal with on a daily basis, I haven't heard anybody say it's a burning issue," says ARISE Detroit! Director Luther Keith. Keith does not advocate marijuana use, but he is a community activist who has a good sense of street-level concerns.

A couple of decades back, this probably would have been a major fight, with Bible-thumping and flag-waving against marijuana. But this is another day. 

Maybe getting over the hump of medical marijuana in this state has smoothed prospects for semi-legalization. Then again, maybe we're just gearing up for something bigger in the long run. 

Voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington will decide on legalization in those states Election Day. If one of those initiatives wins, the game will change for activists across the country. It could be the domino that begins a state-by-state toppling of marijuana laws — similar to the way medical marijuana laws have worked their way around the country. There are currently 17 states with medical marijuana laws, with Arkansas and Massachusetts voting on MMJ next month.

In any case, Tim Beck, one of the leading activists of the Coalition for a Safer Detroit — which helped get Proposal M on the ballot through a petition initiative and a long battle in the courts — feels pretty good about the prospects here. There isn't much money in the coffers of the Coalition, but he envisions at least 60 percent of Detroit voters favoring Proposal M on Nov. 6.

"There aren't any Detroit-specific polls, but 72 percent of the American population believes people should not go to jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana," says Beck. "Our plan is to lay low and let other people start screaming first, but nobody's screaming."

We're not hearing screams, but there are solid endorsements for Proposal M. The Fannie Lou Hamer PAC last week decided to urge voters to vote yes. Michigan's 13th Congressional District Democratic organization has endorsed the proposal, while 14th Congressional District Dems decided not to take a position. The NAACP position is pending.

"Most of these organizations are just torn by infighting on the issue," Beck says. "They just don't know what to do."

State Rep. Fred Durhal Jr. and state Sen. Coleman Young Jr. both support Proposal M. Community activist Lamar Lemmons Jr., a former state representative, is also on board.

Mayor Dave Bing has been silent, likewise the Detroit City Council. A couple months ago, then-Detroit Chief of Police Ralph Godbee said that if Proposal M passed, police would just arrest people under state law. However Godbee, who resigned last week in a sex scandal, is out of the picture.

Practically speaking, passing Proposal M won't make a big difference on the ground in Detroit. Almost anyone who wants marijuana seems able to get it. A sudden surge of new users just because a local ordinance changed is unlikely. Mainly, it would signal that things are changing, possibly emboldening activists to consider further actions. But to some it will be a signal that they need to fight harder against drugs.

"We're not stepping alone," Ken-yatta says of the Partnership for a Drug Free Detroit. He brings up familiar arguments against marijuana: It is a gateway drug to harder stuff; it contributes to domestic violience; it stifles motivation.

"Too many young men and women are sitting on the porch smoking marijuana," Kenyatta says. "They've lost interest in employment and lost interest in education. We don't want to see that low motivation in the city."

Kenyatta speaks from experience. He has seen the tragedy of lives ruined by drugs. However, the War on Drugs itself has been costly, destructive and a failure. Probably as much tragedy is caused by the War on Drugs as by drugs. The war certainly causes more tragedy than is caused by marijuana. That is becoming clear to people in general and, in the face of government indifference or hostility, it's leading to citizen initiatives such as Proposal M — that is how the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act came to be, and how folks in Colorado, Oregon and Washington state have come to votes on legalization. 

People such as Kenyatta are motivated by what they believe to be the right thing to do. However the evidence is changing minds and laws across the country. The Partnership may not be standing alone, but there are fewer and fewer folks on their side of the issue as each day passes.


Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]