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Paradigm shifts and detractors: Decriminalization from Grand Rapids to Portugal

An article about local, state, national and international marijuana and drug laws.
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“The people of the city of Ann Arbor specifically determine that the provisions herein contained concerning marijuana or cannabis are necessary to serve the local purposes of providing just and equitable treatment of the citizens of this community, and in particular of the youth of this community present as university students or otherwise; and to provide for the public peace and safety by preserving the respect of such citizens for the law and law enforcement agencies of the city.” 

Section 16.2 g of Ann Arbor's city charter


/David Sherman

Decriminalizing marijuana locally as well as nationally seems not only logical but ethical and sensible.

In a country where tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals are the norm, it seems ludicrous that marijuana is not yet decriminalized in the United States. Furthermore, the financial benefits must be factored in, along with the benefit of having marijuana as a readily- and legally- available option for those suffering illness.

From Grand Rapids to other cities throughout Michigan and from Colorado to Washington state, the citizens have demanded in rather clear terms: "we want marijuana decriminalized." A potential roadblock to marijuana decriminalization may be the danger cannabis smoke poses, but smokeless alternatives do exist. Fears also may be vocalized about the negative effects of decriminalization on society.

As seen from the country of Portugal, decriminalization has already reaped some very positive benefits. In an attempt to illuminate contrasting perspectives here in Michigan, I spoke to Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth and Ann Arbor council commission member Sabre Briere.

On December 14, I spoke with Mr. Forsyth, in his office at 82 Ionia Street. Among other things, we discussed his suit against Grand Rapids, regarding Proposal 2, which was voted in favor of by 59% of city residents.

“[The negative consequences are] not even the issue of why I filed this lawsuit," says Forsyth. "I don't think the city can legally do this. Not even getting to the consequences, the state law is very clear in my mind. It says: 'The home-rule city- which Grand Rapids is a home-rule city- cannot make a civil infraction out of criminal violation of the drug laws.'”

The city of Detroit passed a marijuana law with Proposal (M), which legalizes possession to less than an ounce for personal use. Those possessing under an ounce of marijuana may be cited under state laws, however the money made from fines and citations will no longer benefit the Detroit police department, but rather be paid to Lansing.

A charter amendment was on the November 2011 ballot in Kalamazoo, which reads as follows: Shall the Kalamazoo City Charter be amended such that the use and/or consumption of one ounce or less of usable marijuana by adults 21 years or older is the lowest priority of law enforcement personnel?”

66% of Kalamazoo residents voted in favor of said amendment.

In October of this year, the city commissioners of Kalamazoo unanimously voted to decriminalize marijuana. A misdemeanor charge for adults (twenty-one and over) caught with less than an ounce of marijuana- along with a fine of up to $100 or a jail sentence of up to 93 days- is the result.

“It is anticipated that enforcement of possession of marijuana will result in savings to the KDPS through elimination of processing arrestees and in lab/evidence expenses. The significance of having officers freed up to respond to calls of service instead of being tied up processing an arrest cannot be understated,” Kalamazoo city attorney Clyde J. Robinson says in a Raw Story article.  

The Kalamazoo model of decriminalization is based on that of the city of Chicago.

During my interview of Kent County Prosecutor Forsyth, I asked him if there are times when the citizenry should speak up, citing the peaceful protests of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (noting that these actions were considered criminal in the Apartheid South).

“Well, I, I don't think you can just say: 'Well, I disagree with the law, and we're gonna just summarily, just ignore it... if you have a state representative who represents you in Lansing, make your views known to him, and say, 'I want this law changed.' I mean, that’s kind of how the process works,” says Forsyth.

The first Michigan city to revise their ordinance was Ann Arbor in 1972. 

Preluding this were the severe penalties imposed by the state, on people in possession of small amounts of marijuana; a striking example being that of poet-activist John Sinclair. In 1969, Sinclair received a 10 year prison sentence after giving two joints to an undercover officer. Referencing a December 1971 New York Times article by Agis Salpukas, three days after a massive December 1971 rally in support of Sinclair he was released from prison. The marijuana statutes that allowed rulings such as that for Sinclair were ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court.

A marijuana ordinance was introduced in September 1972, reducing penalties of marijuana possession of less than two ounces, to a $5 civil infraction penalty. In the same month, on the 29th, the first test case was adjudicated unconstitutional. As described by Leonard Shapiro in an October 1972 article of the Washington Post, the presiding district court judge deemed it an “intrusion of Ann Arbor in the judicial functions of the State of Michigan." The ordinance was repealed by the city council, but voters overruled the council's decision on April 2, 1974, via an amendment of the city charter (Section 16.2).

“[The Ann Arbor] city government didn't initiate anything," says Ann Arbor city council member Sabra Briere, "the public did.” 

Section 16.2 g, which was amended in November of 2004 states:

“The people of the city of Ann Arbor specifically determine that the provisions herein contained concerning marijuana or cannabis are necessary to serve the local purposes of providing just and equitable treatment of the citizens of this community, and in particular of the youth of this community present as university students or otherwise; and to provide for the public peace and safety by preserving the respect of such citizens for the law and law enforcement agencies of the city.”

This year, proposals and/or charter amendments have been approved not only in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, but also in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Flint.

Flint's decriminalization has met some stiff resistance.

“We're still police officers and we're still empowered to enforce the laws of the state of Michigan and the United States,” said Flint police chief Alvern Lock in a CBS/AP article. "We're still going to enforce the laws as we've been enforcing them."

Brian Morrisey of the Coalition for a Safer Flint -the group that collected enough votes to get the initiative on the ballot- was quoted in the same article.

“If the police want to follow state law rather than city law, then maybe the state should be paying their salary,” Morrisey said.

Both Washington state and Colorado legalized marijuana in November elections. According to a Huffington post article, Colorado's Amendment 64 entails regulating marijuana much like alcohol. Marijuana taxes will be 15%. According to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, marijuana revenues may generate $60 million. The article also cited CNN Money when noting that Washington state's Proposal 502 comes with a tax of 25% at three different stages: grower sales to processing, processing sales to retail and retail sails to the user, with a potential revenue of up to $500 million.

In a study by Dale Gieringer- director of California NORML, a not-for-profit lobbying group working to legalize marijuana, titled “Economics of Cannabis Legalization”, national marijuana legalization would benefit U.S. Taxpayers.

“Legalization would save considerable economic and social costs to the current prohibition system,” according to the study. As evidenced by both his report and the taxation by Colorado and Washington state, there will be additional benefit.

"Marijuana tends to suppress violence," says Gierenger, "whereas alcohol tends to aggravate it.”

“We've got bigger fish to fry,” said President Obama in his ABC interview with Barbara Walters, ”It would not make sense for us to see a top priority as going after recreational users in states that have determined it's legal.”

There are concerns about the negative effects of marijuana smoke on a person's lungs, throat, sinuses and mouth, as well as those around said smoker. These concerns are not without merit. There are, however, various forms of imbibing. Marijuana can be incorporated into butters and food, made into teas or be inhaled via a vaporizer (which produces no smoke).

Other concerns include an increase in drug abuse and crime. One only need look to the country of Portugal if fearing an outbreak of egregious drug abuse.

On July 1 of 2001, the country of Portugal decriminalized all drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Citing Glen Greenwald's book, Decriminalization In Portugal, people are not penalized for possession of small amounts of drugs (Article 29). Fines incurred include treatment requirements, if deemed necessary. 

The percentage of “needle-based” drug use has decreased by 50% since inception of Article 29. Overall drug use is lower than the European Union average.

Marijuana usage among those 15-to-24 years old is considerably lower in Portugal, than- to cite but one example- their neighbor Spain, which reports a usage rate of 23.9%.

According to an article in the Telegraph, an editorial out of the United Kingdom, dated October 15:

“...a group of well known scientists and policymakers involved in the UK Drug Policy Commission have written to our paper. They call for a change in the law, saying that drug use is like junk food or gambling, and should be treated as a public health issue, rather than a crime.”

As I concluded my conversation with Kent County Prosecutor Forsyth, we discussed the citizenry and their right to speak up.

“If the representatives aren't doing as they should, or, as their constituents would like them to do...” I began.

Mr. Forsyth completed my sentence.

“You vote 'em out of the office," said Forsyth, "the next time they come up for election.”

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