Gone To Pot?

As views on marijuana mellow nationwide, voters across Michigan can have their say in the debate with more ballot initiatives this year
Illustrations by Gary Taxali

In his 2013 CNN documentary Weed, Dr. Sanjay Gupta — the neurosurgeon who famously apologized for dismissing medical marijuana and said in March he was “doubling down” on the issue — says, “Marijuana has moved out of the back alleys and into the open.”

Indeed, it has. To ring in the new year, Colorado began selling pot legally for recreational use and throngs of enthusiastic buyers lined up. President Barack Obama’s comments on marijuana in a New Yorker interview, including saying he didn’t think it was more dangerous than alcohol, fired up activists on both sides. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll in March, more Americans thought sugar, tobacco, and alcohol were more harmful than pot. And pop star Miley Cyrus, known as Hannah Montana in her former Disney life, is touring decked out in a marijuana leotard.

Nationwide, especially out west, more states are pursuing the legalization trail blazed by Colorado and Washington. Alaska could be the next to allow retail pot sales if voters approve an initiative in August. Oregon and Rhode Island are also on the radar of organizations like Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), whose goal is to end prohibition.

Views on marijuana continue to mellow. Last year, a national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported 52 percent of Americans say use of marijuana should be legal. Support has been rising over the years; since 2010 it grew 11 points. But the change since the late 1960s is even more dramatic — a 1969 Gallup survey found 12 percent favored legalizing marijuana use.

It’s not just a national trend. “Like most Americans nationwide, Michigan residents are quickly turning against our failed policy of marijuana prohibition,” says Erik Altieri, communications director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). A 2013 EPIC-MRA poll, which was commissioned by the Michigan NORML, found 47 percent support legalizing and taxing marijuana.

The debate over marijuana is a multifaceted and complex one as moral, scientific, ideological, political, and legal perspectives collide.

As they gear up for more decriminalization ballot proposals in a widespread campaign across Michigan, pro-marijuana advocates say it’s time for “the war on drugs” to end.
Anti-marijuana advocates, meanwhile, say legalization is the wrong direction for the state, specifically where youth are concerned.

Marijuana in Michigan

More than 40 years after Michigan poet-activist John Sinclair’s arrest over two joints, the debate regarding pot is still just as vigorous — and contentious.

In perhaps what is one of the most famous marijuana cases, Sinclair was sent to prison in 1969 for up to 10 years after being arrested for giving two marijuana joints to an undercover cop. At the time, Michigan law called for 10 years for possession and 20 years for sale. In December 1971, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the state’s laws regarding possession were unconstitutional, and Sinclair was freed.

Around the same time, then-Gov. William G. Milliken, a lifelong Republican, called a drug bill to lower the penalty for possession from a felony to a misdemeanor  “enlightened,” according to a report in the Ludington Daily News published on Dec. 10, 1971.

The new law adopted by the Michigan Legislature in December was set to take effect April 1, 1972, so there were no laws on the books for nearly a month. Chief Justice Thomas Kavanagh said at the time there would be no way of prosecuting anyone for marijuana possession until after the weekend of April 1.

That “law limbo” culminated in the first Hash Bash on April 1 of that year. The event has had highs (no pun intended) and lows in terms of attendance. But when High Times magazine got involved, longtime Hash Bash organizer Adam Brook says the magazine’s presence and coverage caused the event to “explode.”

“This was long before social media,” says Brook, who started going to the event in the ’80s and started emceeing in the ’90s. “[Attendance] went from hundreds to thousands. One year there were 12,000” people at Hash Bash, the “largest unadvertised social gathering in the state of Michigan.”

What started as a smoke fest is now a rally for activists seeking an end to prohibition.

The Ballot-Box Crusader

The battle to legalize marijuana in Michigan has been waged at the ballot box. This drive can be traced to an east-side Detroiter named Tim Beck.

The marijuana activist’s proudest achievement hangs on his office wall — the opinion from the Michigan Supreme Court allowing the Detroit decriminalization initiative on the ballot in 2012.

Beck, a retired health insurance executive who at one time eyed public office, battled the city of Detroit for two years to get the initiative on the ballot. “If they had gotten away with [not allowing a vote] it would’ve shut down the ballot initiative process in the state of Michigan essentially,” he says.

His activist career began with a push for the legal use of medical marijuana. In 2002, an attempt to mount a campaign in Detroit failed, mainly because of poor legal advice and a poorly crafted petition, Beck says.

In 2004, Beck tried again — and won.

That victory encouraged people looking for change, Beck says, “and it created a small movement throughout the state.” His group spearheaded ballot initiatives in Ann Arbor, Flint, Traverse City, and Ferndale, which all approved the measures.

At that point, the MPP decided that Michigan “was ripe for change” and provided about $1.2 million in funding for the 2008 Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA), according to Karen O’Keefe, MPP’s director of state policies.

“It seemed clear that Michigan voters were ready to take a more compassionate approach to medical marijuana patients,” says O’Keefe of the climate in 2008.

However, since its passage, it has ignited debate in Michigan. It’s opened the door to a new breed of entrepreneurs, including owners of grow shops and hydroponic businesses, as well as dispensaries (also known as provisioning centers), which was not explicitly written into the 2008 law. They were deemed illegal by the Michigan Supreme Court last year but are still operating in some communities.

As of press time, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, that would allow for the creation of provisioning centers was pending in the Legislature.

On The ‘No’ Side

As marijuana becomes more mainstream, law enforcement and youth-focused anti-drug campaigns continue to oppose loosening of the laws, citing the impact on youth.

An alarming trend for groups such as the Chippewa Valley Coalition for Youth & Families is decreasing perceived risk among youth. The 2013 Monitoring the Future survey, conducted at the University of Michigan, reports that 39.5 percent of 12th-graders view regular marijuana use as harmful, down from 44.1 percent the previous year, and considerably lower than rates from past decades.

“We hope there is no further approval of marijuana,” says Charlene McGunn, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Coalition for Youth & Families, which launched Mobilizing Michigan last year, an anti-drug campaign that focuses on youth to prevent substance abuse.

The campaign grew out of concern about the local and national trends on marijuana. The effect on youth is ignored in the conversation on legalization and medical marijuana, says McGunn, who adds marijuana affects teens’ brain development.

Scott Masi, community outreach and referral specialist at Brighton Center for Recovery, says the social norming of marijuana is a big issue.

“I call it the perfect storm,” he says. “[Teens’] risk perception is dropping [while] the potency of marijuana is increasing dramatically.”

There has been an increase in pot potency over the years, according to the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Project (PMP). The program analyzed more than 46,000 samples between 1993 and 2008 and found potency increased from 3.4 percent to 8.8 percent.

Marijuana has also replaced alcohol as youths’ first “mind-altering substance,” Masi says.

Shifting attitudes among youth were apparent during focus groups of Macomb County students, led by Kathleen Zimmerman-Oster, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Detroit Mercy, in 2009. The groups were conducted as part of a needs assessment for a SAMHSA Drug Free Communities (DFC) grant awarded to the Chippewa Valley Coalition for Youth & Families.

Among some of the common themes to emerge from the teens’ thoughts and perceptions about marijuana included daily frequent use by several students; driving while high was fine; and the medical marijuana act makes it easier to obtain pot. When asked what percentage of their classmates use marijuana, participants estimated 40-50 percent toked up daily or weekly.

“Marijuana is a gateway drug,” Masi says. “I don’t even know why we still argue about that. I can go to everyone who comes to our treatment facility [for other substance abuse] and they’ve used marijuana … marijuana plays a significant role in their using history,” Masi says.

The Medical Argument

Marijuana is classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 substance — the same category as heroin, LSD, and Ecstasy. A part of the medical reference book U.S. Pharmacopeia since 1850 until its removal in 1942, marijuana has been deemed without medical value as a Schedule 1 drug.

While it’s safe to say most people agree that fellow Schedule 1 narcotic heroin is harmful, the consensus is not as clear for marijuana, which is seen as medicine for some and damaging to one’s health to others.

In 2013, there were more than 118,000 patients in Michigan, according to the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

Flint’s Chelsea Shaker is one of those patients. She says it has helped her lead a more normal life.

Shaker, 27, who is editor of MMM Report, a monthly magazine focused on medical marijuana, has several health problems, including fibromyalgia and chronic kidney disease. “If I don’t get enough sleep due to my fibromyalgia or I overexert myself, I can literally be bedridden days on end,” she says.

Prescription drugs are not an option, says Shaker, who also works at the Michigan Grow dispensary in Flint and advocates for patient rights through the Cannabis Stakeholders Group. “I’m not saying medical marijuana is my cure-all, but if I can use that with an herbal remedy then that’s pretty much the only option for me,” she says.

Marijuana also helped Steve Green, 35, of Lansing, treat his epilepsy. Green says he would have about 100 seizures a year, suffering many injuries as a result. He’s used pain meds like Percocet to manage the seizures but “the side effects didn’t outweigh the relief.”

The other options — brain surgery and a shocking device in the brain — were nonstarters.

Enter a third option: marijuana. He started by smoking, which didn’t prevent seizures but helped alleviate the pain after one.

His wife, Maria, 32, began putting it into food, and Steve says he noticed a reduction in seizures. Maria concentrated it further so he could take it as a pill, which stopped the seizures.

Then Maria, a licensed caregiver who studied biochemistry in college, started looking for ways for people to have health benefits without using the illegal substance. She figured out how to source the beneficial compounds from plants and herbs such as lavender. She then puts the compounds into pill form for consumption. This research prompted her to launch her own natural supplement business called Cann-ology.

In late 2011, Maria started to have her own health problems. She was hospitalized for about 12 days, unable to walk.

After several tests, she was told she had multiple sclerosis. She was given steroid treatments, which made her feel “absolutely terrible and they didn’t stop my problem.”

After Steve’s success with marijuana for his seizures, she decided to give cannabis a try.

About three days later after she started using cannabis, she was able to put her walker away in storage.

On Shaky Ground

While medical marijuana began to ease the Greens’ health issues, their legal problems began. It all started with an unrelated breaking and entering in Auburn Hills, where they previously lived. The Greens had already moved to Lansing, but Maria still had 29 plants at the trailer and was finishing out the harvest. She had three patients at the time, and under the MMMA, caregivers can have up to 12 plants per patient.

She wasn’t home at the time, and police investigating the unrelated incident walked by the residence and smelled marijuana. The plants were confiscated.

Eventually, the Greens found themselves facing felony drug manufacturing charges.

As a condition of his bond, Steve was prohibited from using marijuana. From June to October of last year, the seizures returned. Maria was also not using marijuana, and she had to use her walker again and was in a lot of pain.

“It was definitely hard on us and quite frankly unnecessary to put us through that kind of health problems again when we had them completely under control,” Maria says.

The Greens’ situation worsened when their baby daughter, Brielle, was taken away in a highly publicized case, a result of a bitter custody battle over Maria’s son with her ex-husband, who alleged the couple was using marijuana in front of the kids.

After the criminal charges in Oakland County were dropped in October after the couple showed they were legal medical marijuana patients, the toddler was returned.

Maria blames the Greens’ legal problems partly on the “prohibition of marijuana, which has allowed people to continue to discriminate” against those who have chosen cannabis for medicine, she says.

Legally Shifting Sands

The Greens’ case is an example of what pro-marijuana activists say is conservative interpretation of the law in Michigan that target patients.

“I have been surprised the extent to which some police and prosecutors in Michigan have aggressively targeted patients and providers where they could have used their discretion not to, and where in several cases the courts disagreed with their restrictive interpretations of the law,” MPP’s O’Keefe says. “Several states’ laws are very similar to Michigan’s and have not seen nearly as much litigation.”

Attorney General Bill Schuette, Michigan’s top law enforcement officer, opposed the MMMA before its passage in 2008. Since then, he has joined Chesterfield Township in a lawsuit to shut down a dispensary and a case out of Isabella County that led to the Michigan Supreme Court ruling that dispensaries can be shut down as a public nuisance.

In further conflict with state law, several communities have decriminalized marijuana for small amounts. In 2013, nearly 70 percent of Ferndale voters supported decriminalizing marijuana. Police Chief Timothy Collins says a local ordinance that conflicts with state or federal law is bad public policy. “We are sworn in as police officers. If it’s against the law it’s against the law.”

He says policy should come from the top down, from the federal level to the local communities.

As for Ferndale’s decriminalization initiative, the effect on the police department has been negligible, Collins says.

Before its passage, the department took a look at the amount of possession arrests, following the criteria under Ferndale’s Proposal A, which decriminalizes possession of an ounce or less on private property of people at least 21.

The total amount of arrests for the 3 years and 7 months prior? Zero, he says. He says the department will continue to enforce state marijuana laws.

The Coming Battle

Will Michigan become the next Colorado or Washington? Michigan has gone 14-0 in passing local ballot proposals “that reform marijuana laws in a positive way,” says Rick Thompson, editor of The Compassion Chronicles website.

While more Americans say it’s time to treat marijuana more like alcohol, Collins says that sends a mixed message. “I don’t think that’s the message we want to send … I don’t think that should be our generation’s legacy to our kids.”

Marijuana is a complex issue that’s been treated as simplistic, says McGunn, and “people need to be prepared for what schools are going to be like if there’s going to be legalization.”

A recent study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy suggested that 10 percent of high school seniors who don’t use marijuana at the moment would try it if it were legal.

Led by the Safer Michigan Coalition, activists are gearing up for several more voter initiatives this year. Organizers in metro Detroit communities such as Oak Park, Hazel Park, and Utica will be working to get the initiatives before voters; the effort is widespread as activists are planning to mount signature campaigns around the state, including Port Huron, Onaway, and Mount Pleasant, to name a few.

Beck says his Safer Michigan Coalition group’s efforts aim to send a political message.

“We’ve been accused of causing chaos and confusion in the legal system within the community,” he adds. “I say yes, we’re proud of that, that is the goal. The goal is to create chaos and confusion … that will hopefully impel the state legislature to do the right thing.”

Democrats Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor and Sen. Coleman Young II of Detroit both introduced decriminalization proposals in their respective chambers last year. Irwin says he proposed decriminalization as an easy first step away from “the failed policy we have now.” He says “ultimately we should move toward legalization and a system of regulation and taxation.”

However, there has been no movement on Irwin’s or Young’s proposals. Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, says the panel will not be taking action on Young’s bill.

Meanwhile Jones has pushed legislation of his own that aims to crack down on what he has called lax regulation of medical marijuana. Most recently he has sponsored a bill that would allow Michigan landlords to bar the use or growing of medical marijuana on private property and a proposal to expand court authority over medical marijuana patients’ children.

Some Republicans in the Michigan Legislature have shown their support for medical marijuana-friendly bills. Two high-profile proposals — the “medibles” (forms of marijuana that is not smoked, such as oils and infused food products) and the provisioning centers bills — were sponsored by Republicans. Rep. Eileen Kowall, R-White Lake, introduced the medibles (or concentrates) proposal; Callton spearheaded the provisioning centers act. It’s safe to say most people agree that fellow Schedule 1 narcotic heroin is harmful. The consensus is not as clear for marijuana. Both are pushing for patient-friendly laws while representing conservative districts, says The Compassionate Chronicles’ Thompson.

After passing the House with bipartisan support, both bills were in committee as of press time. After a public hearing in March, pro-marijuana activists and patients are hopeful the proposals will pass.

Matthew Abel, a lawyer at Cannabis Counsel in Detroit and executive director of the Michigan NORML, says, “Michigan may be dragged along kicking and screaming to legalization because the legislature is so resistant,” he says.

To Altieri of the national NORML organization, it’s not a matter of if but when. “What remains a roadblock is the hesitancy on behalf of many elected officials to publicly push for such reforms, wrongly viewing it as a liability instead of an opportunity.

“If legislators don’t begin representing the will of their constituents, it is likely state citizens will take action on their own and push for a ballot measure as soon as 2016.”

Michigan’s Milestones

Here are a few select dates regarding the history of marijuana in Michigan.

Poet-activist John Sinclair is arrested for giving two marijuana joints to an undercover cop.

Sinclair is sentenced to nine and half to 10 years in prison.

A “Free John Now” concert is held at Crisler Arena. Performers include Bob Seger, John Lennon, and Yoko Ono.
The Michigan Legislature reduces penalties for marijuana possession.

Marijuana is decriminalized in Ann Arbor.
Michigan Supreme Court overturns Sinclair’s conviction and declares the existing law unconstitutional. From March 9 to April 1, there are no laws making marijuana possession illegal.
The first Hash Bash is held on April 1 on the University of Michigan campus.

Ann Arbor voters approve a proposal raising the marijuana possession fine to $25 from $5.

Marijuana activists Tom Crosslin — who turned Rainbow Farm on the west side of the state into a campground and held pro-pot festivals — and Rollie Rohm are killed by police at their home at the farm.

Detroit medical marijuana initiative is approved.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Act ballot initiative passes with 63 percent of the vote.

November: Grand Rapids, Flint, and Detroit voters OK decriminalization ballot initiatives.
November: In Ypsilanti, a measure to make marijuana prosecution law enforcement’s lowest priority is approved.

February: The Michigan Supreme Court rules marijuana dispensaries can be shut down under Michigan’s public nuisance law, virtually prohibiting all retail medical marijuana sales.
April: Rep. Jeff Irwin introduces decriminalization bill in the House. The proposal would make simple possession a civil infraction instead of a misdemeanor.
April: Several medical marijuana-related laws take effect: House Bill 4834, extends ID card expiration from one to two years;
April: House Bill 4856 requires medical marijuana to be transported in the trunk of a car;
April: House Bill 4851 creates a “bona fide physician-patient relationship” and mandates that such a relationship is necessary before certification.

October: Sen. Coleman Young II introduces decriminalization bill in the Senate.
November: Decriminalization initiatives pass in Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson.
December: House passes HB 4271, which would allow local communities to license and regulate provisioning centers.
December: House passes HB 5104, also known as the “Concentrates” or “Medibles” bill.
December: Gov. Rick Snyder signs new law that would allow the state to create a “pharmaceutical-grade cannabis” registry if marijuana is reclassified as a Schedule II drug.

February: Michigan Supreme Court invalidates the city of Wyoming’s ordinance that virtually bans medical marijuana from being grown or used within city limits.
April: The Safer Michigan Coalition announces more local decriminalization initiatives.