Michigan Prepares to Vote on Recreational Marijuana Next Month

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It’s not hard to find Tami VandenBerg’s house. Set in a cozy part of Eastown, her front yard is the only one on her street littered with yard signs. “Black Lives Matter” and “Science is Real,” reads one; another backs a Democrat for state attorney general.

But signs positioned at both ends of her front lawn read “Yes on Proposal 1” — tokens of what, for the moment, is VandenBerg’s loudest and most urgent crusade.

The ballot item, which goes before Michigan voters on Tuesday, Nov. 6, would legalize recreational marijuana across the state. Proponents compare it to the way alcohol is regulated: it would only be legally bought, kept and used by people 21 and up. Local governments would be able to tightly control marijuana businesses or even ban its sale within their borders.

A slew of other regulations come with the proposal, like a 10-ounce home possession limit and a system of taxes to support things like schools, roads and local governments. Proponents say it means less money for criminal enterprise and fewer lives ruined for petty possession offenses.

“Before I was a business owner, I worked with homelessness in the (Grand Rapids) area on and off for 20 years,” said VandenBerg, a board member with MI Legalize, a pro-cannabis advocacy group backing Proposal 1. “That’s when I was introduced to drug policy, and that’s when my eyes were opened very, very wide to the very disproportionate way that the marijuana laws are enforced.”

“I would say it’s a straight-up racist law,” Tami VandenBerg, a vocal advocate of Proposal 1, said of marijuana prohibition. “It’s a law to control people of color and protest movements.”
“I would say it’s a straight-up racist law,” Tami VandenBerg, a vocal advocate of Proposal 1, said of marijuana prohibition. “It’s a law to control people of color and protest movements.”

Vandenberg said she regularly saw criminal drug histories — like marijuana charges — keeping people of color out of housing and out of a job while white neighbors seemed less likely to incur a rap sheet.

“I would say it’s a straight-up racist law,” VandenBerg said of marijuana prohibition. “It’s a law to control people of color and protest movements.”

Michigan’s views on marijuana possession have been relaxing for years. A slew of cities, including Grand Rapids, have decriminalized certain types of possession and use; a 2008 ballot initiative has already made medical pot legal in the state, and despite some delays, Grand Rapids is expected to begin processing applications to run medical marijuana facilities in 2019. Much like the country as a whole, Michigan’s relationship with marijuana has been transformed by the decades since the War on Drugs.

Paul Farage is a co-owner of the Society of Healing Arts Institute, or SOHAI (say it out loud), a business that helps patients in western and northern Michigan navigate the bureaucracy between them and medical marijuana. Farage calls it a “doctor’s office for holistic health,” and says Proposal 1 is a step in the right direction. Not only will it reduce marijuana arrests, he argued, but also it will reduce the stigma the drug has carried for decades.

“I feel like we all have been misled about marijuana. It should never have been made illegal,” Farage said, calling it a “powerful” tool for healing. “It’s like we really are afraid to reach outside the box, and that’s where marijuana or any of these substances come into play. It’s more of a fear than it is a danger.”

And for some marijuana advocates, Proposal 1 actually falls short. Timothy Locke is a Midland-area resident who led the signature drive for this year’s Abrogate Prohibition petition, a failed effort that would have created a ballot item for a sweeping, legal-cannabis state constitutional amendment. Locke, who said he’s used marijuana for pain relief since he was a teen in 1980, believes treating marijuana like alcohol still leaves it far too tightly regulated.

“A lot of people would think that (I’m a yes vote),” Locke said. “I am, at this particular point, a no-vote. I don’t believe we should be giving the state more authority. The problem is we gave the state too much authority over cannabis to begin with.”

Ryan Huey is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Michigan State University, where he’s studying the state’s countercultural movement. He traces Michigan’s modern relationship with marijuana back through 1952, when tight new anti-drug enforcement was enacted and aimed at “kingpin” traffickers. But in practice, he said, the law appeared likelier to affect small-time black marijuana violators.

The 1960s and early ‘70s saw looser regulations in tandem with a more permissive marijuana culture, reaching an apparent high-water mark in 1977. Huey shared a Lansing State Journal article from that year describing the tearful testimony of a legislator who lost his son to a heroin overdose. Shortly afterward, lawmakers rejected a bill that would have lowered the penalty for “nonprofit possession” to a misdemeanor with a maximum $100 fine.

The ensuing years brought an increasingly conservative outlook on marijuana around the country as the War on Drugs raged and marijuana culture fell increasingly out of favor with the public.  The rest, as they say, is history.

SOHAI's location in eastern Grand Rapids. “It’s like we really are afraid to reach outside the box," co-owner Paul Farage said.
SOHAI’s location in eastern Grand Rapids. “It’s like we really are afraid to reach outside the box,” co-owner Paul Farage said.

Times might soon change, though. A Detroit News-WDIV survey of likely voters, published earlier this month, shows high support for legalization, with 62 percent in favor of passing the item — apparent indication that Michigan’s laws will continue their years-long trend away from prohibition.

But plenty of observers aren’t so sure that’s advisable.

Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker questioned claims about tax revenue, which backers say could reach $500 million within the first five years. “How many times have we heard this before? ‘The lottery is going to pay for the schools, the gas tax is going to pay for roads,’” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t think marijuana is any different.”

Becker’s concerns go deeper than tax revenues. He questioned the 10-ounce limit on home possession, which he said is unusually high, and he pointed to rising public health concerns where recreational marijuana has become legal.

According to a 2017 investigation by the Denver Post, marijuana is a growing concern in fatal traffic accidents throughout Colorado, where recreational pot was approved in a 2012 ballot measure. There is no definitive link, but fatal automobile crashes grew 40 percent from 2013 to 2016, with drivers testing positive for marijuana in those crashes growing from 10 to 20 percent.

Pressed for any benefits of legalization, Becker said there are none. Only 8 percent of Michigan felons now in prison are there on drug charges, he said, and only a fraction of those are doing time for marijuana-related crimes.

Adam London is a health officer with the Kent County Health Department. His department takes no position on the proposal, he stressed, but he still offered a slew of information suggesting that Proposal 1 will have negative public health effects. He provided documents, prepared by a national anti-legalization group, that show rising emergency marijuana-related poison control calls in both Colorado and Washington.

“There is a reality that we have marijuana use, and it’s been going on for a long time,” London said. “There may be benefits to this, but then I look at things like tobacco and alcohol. The revenues we create off those things — is that the right way to create social policy around substances we know to be harmful, so the state becomes dependent on these things we know are not good for the community?”

Proponents answer these claims with data of their own. A spokesman for Proposal 1 shared a study prepared by Washington state officials showing that the age of first-time marijuana users doesn’t appear to have changed much between 2006 and 2014.

Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters.
Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters.

And in Grand Rapids, police statistics reflect a city relaxing its concerns with marijuana.  The total number of Grand Rapids police reports on two key statistics — marijuana use and possession — have remained relatively stable since 2010, records show. But behind that stable figure, “use” reports have risen as “possession” has tapered off, something police officials say has happened as the city’s 2012 decriminalization measures (which decriminalized certain Types possession and Use) took effect, shifting the thresholds officers use to pursue those violations.

According to figures provided by the department, that total in 2010 was 1,150; in 2014, it was 1,174; last year, it was 1,280; as of mid-October, this year’s figure was 973, on pace for a year-end total just above 1,100. A department spokesperson stressed that those reports don’t always mean arrests — for example, if police officers break up a house party and later find marijuana, it might be noted in a report despite no one being detained.

But two other sets of reports, on marijuana production and sales, have fallen off.  Lt. William Nowicki, commander of the department’s vice unit, said that’s come in the wake of medical marijuana legalization.

“Medical marijuana has kind of becoming more accepted or mainstream,” said Nowicki, who stressed the department is “neutral” on the ballot proposal. “…There’s so many people out there who can legally possess or grow.”

And advocates like VandenBerg point out that, when it comes to public health, use by minors — or using and driving — still won’t be legal if Proposal 1 passes. She wonders at how many people have lost custody of their kids, how many students have lost their shot at college and how many employers their workers over prohibition. For her, the issue is as much a matter of civil liberties as anything else.

“We’re attacking our own citizens on this, and I feel that this is morally wrong,” she said.

*Main photo courtesy of Thinkstock Photos

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