Advocates urge decriminalization of marijuana in Grand Rapids

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LEGAL NEWS PHOTOS BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Grand Rapids has generally gone its own way in developing as a great place to live, work, and play, but now promoters of a ballot initiative would like to see the city follow in the footsteps of another successful place: Ann Arbor.

Of course, with their own West Michigan-sensitive twist.

At a press conference held in the fog last Friday morning, DecriminalizeGR Director Michael Tuffelmire announced a petition drive to put a question on the November ballot about decriminalizing the use of marijuana in Grand Rapids. Legal counsel Jack Hoffman reviewed the details of the statute.

The proposal to add Section 296, Restrictions of Marijuana, to Title XVIII of the Grand Rapids City Charter, Title XVIII Miscellaneous Provisions reads, part:

“(a) No person shall possess, control, use, or give away marijuana or cannabis, which is defined as all parts of the plant cannabis sativa l., whether growing or not; its seeds or resin; and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the above, unless such possession, control, or use is pursuant to a license or prescription as provided in Public Act 196 of 1971, as amended...

“(b) Violations of this section shall be civil infractions. Persons convicted of violating this section shall be fined $25.00 for the first offense, $50.00 for the second offense, $100.00 for the third or subsequent offense and no incarceration, probation, nor any other punitive or rehabilitative measure shall be imposed. Fines and all other costs shall be waived upon proof that the defendant is recommended by a physician, practitioner or other qualified health professional to use or provide the marijuana or cannabis for medical treatment.”
The language goes on to direct that the ticketing process be conducted according to Michigan Public Act 147 of 1968, as amended and that “[n]o Grand Rapids police officer, or his or her agent, shall complain of the possession, control, use, or  giving away of marijuana or cannabis to any other authority except the Grand Rapids City Attorney; and the City Attorney shall not refer any said complaint to any other authority for prosecution.”  The amendment amplifies the above exemptions for medical marijuana users; the section is deemed to be null and void if the State of Michigan enacts lesser penalties.

The purposes are set out at the end of the proposal: “providing just and equitable legal treatment of the citizens of this community, and in particular of the youth of this community present as college 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.”
But as Hoffman pointed out at the press conference, the Ann Arbor statute, passed in 1972 as one of the first in the United States, includes “sale” in the list of activities that are subject to civil infraction penalties.

Organizers deemed this incompatible with what they think most Grand Rapids voters want to see.

Tuffelmire comments, “I’ve worked with Weed and Seed, and we do have a potential larger criminal element. It seems like decriminalizing sales might open up  a whole set of problems.”
The organizing committee of the initiative thinks its passage would address many current challenges.

First, the city could save money on enforcement against what they call a victimless crime. The group calculates that the City of Grand Rapids spent about $2.5 million on such enforcement in 2010.

The web site, http://decriminalizegr.

com, details their methodology, and assumptions, in arriving at that figure, since specific statistics are not publicly available. Their reasoning was that if national averages for the percent of drug arrests that are for marijuana offenses apply, statistics about the number of “jail bed days,” as well as the amount of time Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) spends on such enforcement, can also be turned into percentages. Then those can be applied to the entire Kent County Corrections Facility budget. Their result was a combined total (for housing and enforcement) of $2,517,346.60.

Another purpose is to standardize law enforcement practices so that GRPD personnel can be freed up to enforce all laws efficiently, and yet another is to be sure marijuana possession laws, and penalties, are applied evenhandedly. “Many people who don’t necessarily like marijuana personally would rather save money for other things,” says Tuffelmire. “Often that money is spent making the lives of people with lower socioeconomic status more difficult, when they’re already facing social issues.”

Tuffelmire recognizes that if the petition drive is successful and the measures makes it onto the ballot, the organizers will need to mount a campaign to educate voters and, he hopes, cause them to vote in favor of it. But he feels that there is widespread community support, starting with former Mayor John Logie.

Logie was an enthusiastic first signer of the petition, stating, “For several years I have believed that changing drug policies to be more proactive with enforcement was better for Grand Rapids and its citizens. I believed it when I spoke on the topic during my 1997 State of the City address and I still believe the same now.”

Comments Tuffelmire, “ I grew up around Mayor Logie, with knowledge about his position on this. And I used to work at the needle exchange, Clean Works, that Mayor Logie started, so I have a lot of knowledge about how well proactive drug policies can work.”

Current City Commissioner James White has also gone on record as supporting the measure.

Placing the proposal on the November ballot requires gathering 6500 signatures, in a city of just over 188,000, by August 6, 2012.

Jack Hoffman, who won the Grand Rapids Bar’s prestigious Donald R. Worsfold Distinguished Service Award last year, is unwilling to hazard a guess about the proposal’s chances if it makes it to the ballot because he is not intimately involved with the process, but says he knows organizers are optimistic about its success. Hoffman reports that his main role was to review the wording and other legal aspects of the initiative. “They came to me, because they knew I’d been involved in other pro bono community-type issues. I thought it deserved a fair shot, so I worked with them.”

At the press conference, Hoffman emphasized that alcohol prohibition in this country failed, and prohibition of marijuana is an idea that does not work.

He says that omitting sale of marijuana was the organizers’ decision. “I think it was a good one. Ann Arbor is a different environment from Grand Rapids, and trying to include sale within the ambit of civil infractions was unlikely to pass, and not necessarily what was best for our city.” Hoffman adds, chuckling a bit, “I was actually around Ann Arbor when that was passed.”

There is a similar measure on the ballot in Detroit after a court case determined that it was not legitimate for an election official to have prevented its being on the ballot in 2010, based on its incompatibility with federal law, as well as a few others around the state. In 2011, Kalamazoo voters approved by a two to one margin a proposal to make the use or possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults the lowest law enforcement priority.