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One Community At A Time: Michigan’s new strategy for legalization

 One
year ago this month, Michigan State Senator Coleman Alexander Young II, son of
the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, teamed up with several colleagues in
the Michigan House to present

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One
year ago this month, Michigan State Senator Coleman Alexander Young II, son of
the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, teamed up with several colleagues in
the Michigan House to present legislation (SB-626 and HB-4623) strongly in
favor of decriminalizing cannabis. Representing the city of Detroit, Young
openly disagreed with many of the more conservative, influential black pastors
of his district who continue to oppose decriminalizing the herb. Young
expressed concern that punitive cannabis laws were doing more—not less—to wreck
the lives of black youngsters, particularly black males, who are already more
predisposed to being burdened with a criminal record at a young age.

According
to the 2014 Michigan Voters Guide,
in response to the question “Do you support decriminalization of recreational
marijuana?” Young responded that he was in favor of decriminalizing cannabis because
of the havoc such unfair laws are wreaking on too many Michigan families, a
disproportionate number of whom are African American. To accompany his
statement, Young prepared the facts of the matter regarding minority arrests in
the state, as well as in the nation, “Minorities are arrested at a rate three
times higher in the state of Michigan and four times higher in the nation than Caucasian
counterparts,” said Young.

No
action was taken on the proposed legislation by the Judiciary Committee in 2013
and not much happened this year either—at least not on the state level. Young’s
colleague in the House, Representative Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor, who sponsored the
companion legislation pushing for lessening penalties against cannabis
possession (HB-4623), also continues to believe relaxing the laws against cannabis
possession is the only sensible way to go. Irwin believes that lessening the
severity of cannabis possession will be better for both the cannabis users as
well as the state, “Ultimately we should move toward legalization and a system
of regulation and taxation,” he stated.

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

So
one year later the State of Michigan continues to fight a battle against
itself, the voters against their representatives. Because even as the majority
of voters in cities like Detroit and Ferndale have expressed their desire to go
easy on the herb, and polls show a noticeable majority of Michigan voters are
in favor of decriminalization, their wishes are placed in a murky state of limbo
since the state of Michigan still treats cannabis possession as a crime. Even
some of the municipalities where laws were passed to decriminalize cannabis (like
Ferndale and Detroit) continue to prosecute in blatant violation of what their
own citizens said loud and clear at the ballot box. Michigan law states that
possession of any amount of cannabis is considered a misdemeanor which can
result in a sentence of one year behind bars and a maximum fine of $2,000. Use
of cannabis is also a misdemeanor that can result in a maximum sentence of 90
days imprisonment and a maximum fine of $100.

Activists
from organizations such as the Safer Michigan Coalition (SMC) have been
organizing their forces to promote more reasonable cannabis legislation, and
there does appear to be some success. According to the most recent posting from
the SMC’s website, the organization reported on recent wins for the herb, “Cannabis
law reform won on the ballot in Hazel Park in the August primary with 63
percent in favor, and in Oak Park with 53 percent. Oak Park was too close for
comfort, but so many people had told us we were going to lose.”

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So
for now the battle continues to be waged on the ground at the municipal level,
sneaking up on victory at the rate of one community at a time.

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