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Voters have spoken, but police have final say

By Lauren Gibbons
Capital News Service

LANSING — Supporters of marijuana decriminalization proposals passed in five Michigan cities say the move is a symbolic step toward better regulation, but residents still might want to wait before lighting up, according to law enforcement officials.

Ballot proposals expanding legal marijuana use beyond current state and federal laws earned voter approval by wide margins Nov. 6 in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti.

Voters in Detroit and Flint supported decriminalization of less than one ounce of marijuana for those older than 21 and 19, respectively.

Grand Rapids voted to make marijuana possession a civil infraction, Ypsilanti determined marijuana possession to be the city’s “lowest police priority,” and Kalamazoo received voter authorization to construct up to three medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

State law currently provides for a fine of up to $2,000 and potential prison time for those convicted of marijuana possession.

The timing and structure of the proposals across all five cities was no accident, said Tim Beck, one of the organizers behind Detroit’s ballot proposal.

By having more lenient marijuana decriminalization laws passed in a wide variety of cities, Beck said it’s harder for those opposed to marijuana reform to argue certain areas or demographics are the only supporters of decriminalization.

“It’s easy for some people to write off Detroit as a special basket case, but they can’t really say that about Grand Rapids,” Beck said. “These proposals are wins in a lot of different, big demographic segments.”

Meanwhile, voters in Washington and Colorado passed ballot initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use. A movement to put a similar proposal before Michigan voters failed to gain enough signatures for this year’s ballot.

Statewide, Michigan already has legalized marijuana use for medical purposes when administered by a licensed caregiver, but it prohibits dispensaries from selling the drug, based on a Court of Appeals decision.

National and statewide law enforcement agencies oppose such measures, reminding the public that state and local laws haven’t changed the federal ban on all marijuana uses.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reiterated the position that its enforcement of the federal ban continues and that the Department of Justice is reviewing all ballot initiatives regarding marijuana.

Col. Kriste Etue, director of the State Police, said her department has struggled to keep marijuana use in check since voters authorized medical marijuana use in 2008. She said the five latest local proposals could only complicate an already difficult legal issue in the affected cities.

“It has really been a struggle for law enforcement to make sure people are using marijuana for true medical reasons,” Etue said. The city decriminalization laws “will have an impact on every community, and it does present a lot of challenges for law enforcement now.”

In some of the cities, local law enforcement agencies don’t have major policy upheavals based on election results on the horizon, leaving residents vulnerable to criminal charges under state law.

Flint police Capt. T.P. Johnson said the Flint Police Department generally bases its enforcement practices on state law, and any changes to current practice regarding touchy legal issues such as marijuana possession would have to be discussed with the city attorney and other city officials.

“We haven’t had any change in our policies just yet,” Johnson said.

Even if the measures end up being more symbolic than substantial, Beck said the importance of getting all five proposals passed likely won’t be lost.

“To some degree, they are symbolic, but the results are a dramatic indicator of where the public really stands here,” Beck said. “That is the overriding message.”

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