YOUR ELi: A Voter Guide for the Marijuana Charter Amendment

Saturday, May 2, 2015, 12:02 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

This Tuesday, May 5, registered voters in East Lansing can vote on two possible amendments to the City Charter. Last week we provided voters information on the land sale charter amendment. This week we bring you information on the charter amendment regarding marijuana, specifically in terms of what it might mean legally in East Lansing.

How would the amendment change the City Charter? If a majority of voters vote in favor of this amendment, the following language will be added to the City Charter under Section 6 of the Charter (Section 6 being “City Legislation”):

“Nothing in the Code of Ordinances shall apply to the use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, on private property, or transportation of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years.”

What is the purpose of this proposed change? The goal of those supporting this amendment is decriminalization of the use and transfer of small amounts of marijuana for people aged 21 and over.

East Lansing attorney Jeff Hank has been the driving force behind this ballot proposal. I asked him to explain for our readers why he has put forth and supported this Charter amendment. Hank told me, “I'm doing this because it's my patriotic duty to do so. Everything cannabis prohibition stands for is fundamentally un-American and violative of the spirit of our better values. I have seen far more harm done from marijuana prohibition than from the use of cannabis and since political leaders do not have the competence or courage to craft a remedy for these wrongs and create better policy, I felt compelled to organize my fellow citizens to do so, and found the people of East Lansing very supportive. The time is ripe for common sense reform.”

Hank says, “People have the ability to change laws in this country and they take it for granted far too often. People need to get involved and I hope to provide an example for others how to utilize our laws to deconstruct systems of oppression—cannabis prohibition being the example here.”

Would this Charter Amendment actually change police and prosecutorial practice? Members of City staff and leaders of the East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) in public statements have consistently insisted that it can’t change practice because we will still be governed by state and federal laws where cannabis is concerned.

In response to questions from me for our readers, ELPD’s Lieutenant Steve Gonzalez says, “Should the amendment pass it is important to note that possession of marijuana still remains illegal under both state and federal law. East Lansing Police Officers will still maintain the authority and obligation to enforce the state law banning the possession of marijuana as they do with all other state criminal laws. Officers are sworn to uphold and enforce not only the applicable ordinances of the community in which they serve, but also state criminal statutes. Therefore it would be inappropriate for officers to enforce all state statutes, except of one (possession of marijuana).”

What has happened in other cities? Some other Michigan cities have gone down a similar path of local decriminalization, and in practice, what police and prosecutors do varies depending on local politics.

In 2013, voters of Lansing passed a marijuana amendment to their City Charter that had exactly the wording now proposed for East Lansing’s Charter. The Lansing Charter amendment had the full support of Mayor Virg Bernero.

Bernero said in a statement in 2013 that he believed “The public is far ahead of most politicians on this issue.” He added, “My personal view is that marijuana prohibition has been a complete failure that has mainly succeeded in filling up our prisons with minor drug offenders at an extremely high cost to the taxpayers of this state. Our police officers and courts have more important things to do than pursue and prosecute these violations.”

Grand Rapids voters also passed a decriminalization charter amendment in 2012. There, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth challenged the amendment in court. According to MLive, “Forsyth challenged the law because he said it wrongly prohibits Grand Rapids police from enforcing state law, or reporting marijuana offenses to county prosecutors.” Earlier this year, the State Court of Appeals upheld the Grand Rapids charter amendment, saying, “In sum, the [Grand Rapids] Charter Amendment is not preempted by state law.”

According to MLive, in Ann Arbor, marijuana “has been essentially decriminalized since the 1970s” in Ann Arbor, and the result has been that “there are different risks for possessing marijuana depending on where someone is standing in Ann Arbor.”

Specifically, “Under the [Ann Arbor] city charter, it's a $25 civil infraction, similar to a parking ticket, for a first offense, $50 for a second offense, and $100 after that, with no threat of incarceration, probation or any other punitive or rehabilitative measures. That's the local law, well known to cannabis enthusiasts, that city police enforce in Ann Arbor.” But, “if someone is on state property, such as the University of Michigan . . . they can be busted by campus police, arrested and charged under state law with a crime punishable by jail time and more severe fines.”

This potential confusion about what will actually happen in individual cases in East Lansing—particularly on campus versus off campus—has been named by various City officials as one reason to vote against the amendment. A concern is that people may think they will not be prosecuted when in fact they will be.

Could ELPD decide to back off on enforcement of state law if this passes?

Hank believes leaders of East Lansing could, should, and will decide, if this amendment passes, to back off on prosecution when dealing with the possession or transfer of small amounts of marijuana for people 21 and older. I informed him that ELPD continues to say they will enforce under state law, and Hank responded, “I suspect that's just political posturing and if the vote passes, we will have de facto legalization under the parameters of the charter amendment.”

Hank goes further, saying, “I will ask the [East Lansing City] council to give explicit direction to the ELPD and the city manager to respect the will of the voters and expect the council to do so and ELPD and staff to respect the same. In a constitutional democracy all power derives from the people and ELPD and the city manager are subordinate to [the] will of the people and they will have to live with that reality if the initiative passes.” He believes many in the rank-and-file of ELPD agree with his stance on this issue.

But according to ELPD’s Gonzalez, “if officers were to selectively enforce state laws it may cause confusion and a sense of false security for individuals that may believe they are in compliance with the law.”

Gonzalez adds a position put forth by various ELPD representatives on this issue—that the presence of marijuana creates opportunities for violent crime: “it is important for individuals to understand the potential danger surrounding the possession and sale of marijuana. While the amendment does not expressly allow for the sale of marijuana it is a very lucrative cash business. In 2014, two MSU students lost their lives during robbery attempts during the transfer of marijuana.”

Where and when can you vote? Polls will be open to registered voters on Tuesday, May 5, 7 am - 8 pm. Polling location information is available at the City Clerk's website.

 

Image courtesy Michael W. Benutzer at wikimedia.org

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