Municipal Governments in Michigan Reject Marijuana Decriminalization–and Democracy

While voters in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts
celebrate the reform of those states’ marijuana laws, residents in
two Michigan cities are learning that marijuana ballot initiatives
are only as effective as the government wants them to be. In Flint
and Detroit, popular ballot measures decriminalizing the possession
of small amounts of pot have been rendered toothless by resistant
city governments.
“Dead silence.” That’s how marijuana reform activist Tim Beck
described the response of Detroit’s mayor, city council, and police
department to the Nov. 6 passage of a ballot initiative
decriminalizing marijuana possession. Three weeks after voters
expressed their will, “no member of the media seems able get any
kind of answer one way or another,” Beck adds.
On Nov. 7, the Detroit City Council—which months before had sued
to block the decriminalization measure from appearing on the
ballot—called voters’ attempt to scale back the drug war “illegal”
and a “waste of time.”
“I’ve had extensive conversation with corporation counsel in
regard to this, and the proposal is illegal,” Councilwoman Brenda
Jones told CBS Detroit. “It was really a waste of our time,
honestly, but, whatever—we were made to do it by a judge,” Council
President Charles Pugh told CBS. Bold words from a city government
that’s been plagued in recent years by scandal and fiscal
insolvency. ;
That same day, the city of Flint released a press release
calling the passage of its own decriminalization measure “symbolic
in nature.”
“Possession of marijuana continues to be illegal under state and
federal laws,” reads
Flint’s press release. “The police will continue to enforce
state and federal laws relating to possession of marijuana. The
ballot initiate does not provide a defense to those laws and the
public should fully appreciate that possession of marijuana remains
Flint’s express refusal to comply with the ballot measure earned
it a stern rebuke from Law Enforcement Against
Prohibition. ;
“This is in direct violation of the wishes of voters who opted
for a decriminalization approach similar to those successfully
implemented in cities across the country,” LEAP Executive Director
Neill Franklin said in a statement. “The citizens of Flint spoke
loud and clear in favor of change. City officials should respect
the wishes of the voters who put them into office and can remove
them just as easily.”
Can Flint and Detroit simply ignore successful ballot
initiatives? Yes. Yes, they can.
“Under Michigan law, state law supersedes local ordinances in
much the same way federal law trumps state law,” Beck, who
organized support for Detroit’s ballot measure, told
Reason. “The one difference is Michigan state law
specifically allows local law enforcement (such as the Flint police
department) to enforce state law if they so choose and ignore any
local ordinance which conflicts with state law. On the other hand,
if local police choose to follow a local ordinance they also have
that choice. Such a decision is made by authorities such as the
mayor/city council who can order the police chief what to do. That
said, enforcing state law means that any fine or forfeiture money
now goes to the state.”
If Flint and Detroit cops have to give marijuana fines back to
the state of Michigan, now’s a good time for them to focuse their
efforts elsewhere: ;Moody’s just ;downgraded ;Detroit’s
debt rating yet again, and Flint is roughly $17 million in debt and
under the supervision of an emergency manager.
Respecting the will of voters wouldn’t put Flint or Detroit in
uncharted territory. Ann Arbor, home of the top-ranked University
of Michigan, decriminalized marijuana in the early 70s (it has yet
to descend into anarchy). Michigan voters approved medical
marijuana (or “marihuana”) in 2008. ;The refusal of Flint and
Detroit governments to respect voters is especially mystifying
considering that a third Michigan city not only passed a
decriminalization ballot measure, but is hard at work implementing
According to Grand Rapids officials, the new marijuana
ordinance, which reduces marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to
a civil infraction, goes into effect Dec. 6.
While officials in Detroit can’t be bothered to elaborate on
their intransigence, Flint Public Safety Chief Alvern Lock said
his department is “still empowered to enforce the laws of the state
of Michigan and the United States.” But is rule of law really the
motivating factor here? According to Michigan
Radio, the current fine for marijuana possession under Flint’s
city ordinance is $500, while the current fine under state law is
$2,000. Over the last three years, according to
Michigan Live, Flint law enforcement have charged fewer and
fewer people under the city ordinance, while increasingly charging
people under state law. That doesn’t sound like rule of law, that
sounds like fleecing. ;
Regardless, Lock should know that he’s also empowered to respect
the will of Flint voters. Considering that they’re the ones paying
Lock’s his salary, maybe he should treat them with a little less
contempt. ;


Municipal Governments in Michigan Reject Marijuana Decriminalization–and Democracy

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