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Experts: Marijuana legalization not likely in Michigan

By Tui Rademaker, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 20, 2012

Nowadays there seems to be as many different opinions on marijuana usage as there are nicknames for the drug.

When Colorado and Washington passed controversial measures earlier this month to legalize marijuana, many college students around the country rejoiced at the measures in hope that their states would soon follow suit. However, public opinion polls show America is heavily divided on matters involving the popular street drug, and experts say Michigan legislators are reluctant to make a move on the controversial issue.

National statistics point to a shift in attitudes towards marijuana legalization. According to the Pew Research Center, 16 percent of Americans favored legalization of the drug in 1990, while the latest data collected in 2011 puts that number at 45 percent.

If recreational marijuana usage becomes legal in Michigan, experts agree that it must be done through a ballot petition as opposed to state legislation. Though many states are taking action on the issue, Neil Yashinsky — the Oakland County director of the Michigan Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an organization that advocates for marijuana reform — said it’s far more likely that Michiganders will see more municipalities slowly legalizing the drug as opposed to any sweeping state law.

This local approach was seen most recently in the November election, when five Michigan cities — Grand Rapids, Detroit, Ypsilanti, Kalamazoo and Flint — voted to
decriminalize marijuana in various capacities.

In the city of Ann Arbor, possession of marijuana is decriminalized and punishable with a $25 fine, with no jail or probation. However, University Police enforce state law on campus property. State law regards possession of marijuana as a misdemeanor, punishable by one year in jail and up to $2,00 in fines.

Most recently, the Committee for a Safer Michigan, a group pushing for legalization, started a petition to put a proposal on the 2012 state ballot to legalize marijuana. Though the group collected 50,000 signatures, it fell short of the about 323,000 required for a ballot proposal.

Thomas Levine, an attorney with Cannabis Council and director of the committee, said the main reason the campaign failed was due to a lack of funds, as opposed to lack of interest.

“I don’t think it was a sign that people were not ready for this — it was just a matter of being able to pay petitioners so we’re going to be revisiting this in 2016 and we’re going to be raising money between now and then,” Levine said.

However, Michael Traugott, a political science and communications professor, pointed out that the unwillingness of voters to amend the state’s constitution in other policy areas in the recent election, in which all six ballot proposals were defeated, may show that voters have trepidation with altering the document.

“I don’t think that given the outcome of the 2012 election, that many people are going to be willing to amend the state constitution to allow the sale of marijuana,” Traugott said.

While some college students have expressed excitement about the possible legalization of the popular drug, Traugott said Michiganders shouldn’t expect to see much progress on the drug’s legalization anytime soon.

“I think the progress on this is going to be very slow given that the federal government still objects to legalizing marijuana for general consumption,” Traugott said.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) also presumed that a more likely path for marijuana legalization is through citizen petition and local initiatives, though he noted it’s an issue he would be willing to discuss within the state Legislature.

“I’m certainly willing to talk about improving our marijuana laws … and willing to bring those ideas to (the) Legislature,” Irwin said. “But do I think there’s going to be a majority of legislatures who are going to support that move in the short term? Probably not … I think by and large politicians … don’t want to take on controversial issues.”

Irwin said he supports legalization because he feels it could lead to a long-term reduction in drug usage as a result of proper regulation and education on the drug, alluding to the success in reduction of smoking in America.

“If you look at cigarettes over the last 30 to 50 years, you now see cigarette use has declined pretty precipitously because of a concerted information campaign … to communicate with people what the dangers are of tobacco use,” he said. “Look at how much more successful that strategy has been in terms of reducing tobacco use than for instance the drug war has been in reducing marijuana use.”

On the federal level, President Barack Obama has previously stated that he has no intention of legalizing the drug.