Ask ELi: What's the State of Marijuana Law in East Lansing?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016, 12:02 pm
By: 
Ann Nichols

Recently, an ELi reader asked what the state of marijuana law was in East Lansing, and whether or not it really was legal to possess small amounts of the substance.

On May 5th, 2015, 65.57% of East Lansing voters (among those voting that day) approved a City-wide decriminalization of some marijuana possession, making it legal for those over 21 years of age to possess or transport less than an ounce of marijuana for recreational (rather than medical) purposes.

Despite passage of this City ordinance, there are currently no dispensaries in East Lansing and ELPD continues sometimes to arrest and prosecute for possession of amounts of marijuana less than one ounce, as it is still illegal under State law.

“Medical marijuana” is a different case. It has been legal in the State of Michigan since voters approved a ballot measure in 2008, and a person with a State-issued medical marijuana card may legally possess and transport up to 2.5 ounces of cannabis or twelve plants for personal use. Dispensaries, however, are not legal in Michigan.

Because the overlap of East Lansing and Michigan law is confusing, I decided to look into it as a practical matter: How likely are you, in East Lansing, to actually be arrested and possibly prosecuted if you have a joint in your glove compartment or backpack?

The clear starting point to get an answer was ELPD, since the police are on the front lines of enforcement. I contacted the Department’s press contact Detective/Lieutenant Scott Wriggelsworth and asked him if, after the change of Department Chief from Juli Liebler to Jeff Murphy, it was still the Department’s position that East Lansing officers would enforce State possession law.

Wriggelsworth responded, “That is still true. We would still use the Michigan Statute if appropriate.”

This answer created more questions than it answered, including the issue of what constituted “appropriate,” and whether the East Lansing decriminalization vote had been essentially meaningless.

As a follow-up, I asked Wriggelsworth if there had been any changes in the number of citations since the change in the City Charter. I also asked how ELPD officers decided whether to apply the local law or Michigan law in individual cases.

Rough numbers from ELPD are as follows. The numbers, indeed, appear to be down since the ordinance passed:

From May 2014 through May 2015, there were 34 possession of MJ cases in East Lansing.

From June 2015 through May 2016, there were 10 possession of MJ cases in East Lansing.

According to Wriggelsworth, East Lansing’s previous statute on low-level possession was easier to enforce. With that local law replaced by the current local decriminalizing of possession of an ounce or less, it is more onerous and time-consuming for ELPD officers to arrest for possession, because they have to use the State law.

“Again,” Wriggelsworth says, “we used to be able to write a ticket and/or arrest when the City had the ordinance. Now we can no longer cite, we have to do a report, send through the lab, wait for results, seek a warrant thru ICPO, etc. Much more cumbersome/more work.”

According to local attorney Jeff Hank, who led the move to put the East Lansing ordinance on the May 2015 ballot, other communities have successfully harmonized State law and local ordinances on marijuana. He provided examples including Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Lansing. (Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero is a regular speaker at Ann Arbor’s annual Hash Bash.)

Hank told me that all current members of East Lansing’s Council are “on the record” in support of legalization, and that if ELPD is, in fact, still choosing to enforce State rather than local law, “it’s unfortunate” and “wouldn’t be respecting the will of the people.”

Based on Hank’s insistence that East Lansing’s City Council and staff could set a tone for enforcement, and the fact that Council had recently asked PACE, another branch of local law enforcement, to slow the pace of ticket-writing for parking offenses, I reached out to Council, asking them about their positions on legalization locally and in general, and whether they would consider smoothing the current inconsistency in enforcement by asking ELPD to use the local ordinance.

Council member Erik Altmann responded that he “strongly favor[s] decriminalization,” and that he “supported the East Lansing Charter amendment because I thought it was a step in the right direction. I would prefer that ELPD be guided by East Lansing law rather than State and federal law, where they are in conflict.”

Altmann wasn’t certain about Council’s ability to direct ELPD on the issue, and said that he had “talked with the Mayor and City Manager about this and I can't say I’m certain about ELPD's position or about what our policy options are as a Council. I hope we can put these issues on the agenda for the next discussion-only Council meeting, which will be in September. I think we could all use some clarity.” He didn’t feel that the PACE parking-ticket-writing situation was a good comparison because “the situation here seems to be more complex because it involves conflicting laws, and possibly because it involves officers sworn to uphold the laws.”

Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier wrote that she “supports decriminalization of all drugs,” and that, “As a country, state, and city, we should concentrate on violent crime instead.” On the issue of Council directing ELPD on issues of enforcement, however, Beier sees less leeway than Altmann. “As far as I can tell, the police don't have a lot of choice. They have to enforce State law. Council and City staff can set a tone, but can't really tell police not to enforce the law.”

Mayor Mark Meadows, who is an attorney, chose not to provide his personal opinion on legalization, but focused on the legal situation. “It is complicated. The Charter change eliminated our ordinance as it applies to people over 21 years old. It did not and could not eliminate State and federal law, which is more onerous.”

Meadows added that “A further complication is that the State legislature has specifically prohibited us from making marijuana possession or use a civil infraction. We are trying to find an appropriate resolution so we can implement what I think the voters intended. The actual Charter change did not actually accomplish that intent though.”

Council member Susan Woods did not respond to requests for their take. Council member Shanna Draheim did respond, indicating that she would evaluate the questions and decide whether she wished to answer. As of press time she has not weighed in; we will update the story in the event that she does.

Feeling not much more enlightened than when I started, I checked in again with Hank to get his response to the statements of Altmann, Beier and Meadows.

He answered, “The only comment I really have is that Council and City staff can set the tone and tell police not to arrest or cite for marijuana. They can't outright prohibit local police from enforcing State law but ELPD always has discretion whether to enforce State or local law. They don't have to enforce State law.”

Hank went on to reiterate that “That same dynamic is present at Hash Bash in Ann Arbor every year where campus police choose not to enforce State law. There is no reason ELPD can't or shouldn't approach the issue as voters indicated they wanted with a landslide vote of 65% in an off-election. I bet if the issue were on this year's ballot we'd hit 70% in favor. So Council should take this up at a meeting soon to discuss and set the tone for policy.”