Two years since decriminalization proposal, a look at marijuana in East Lansing
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It's a warm, sunny Spring day in East Lansing. The relatively gorgeous weather has students playing sports in their yards or sunbathing while studying. The sunlight has melted the snow and started going to work at the community's collective stress as well.
East Lansing resident and MSU graduate Lee enjoys the view from the roof of his house, sharing a joint with his housemates.
In May 2015, East Lansing voters approved a proposal that limited the city from having or enforcing ordinances that prohibited marijuana use under certain conditions.
In October 2016, East Lansing City Council approved an ordinance that formally decriminalized marijuana use under these restrictions, changing the offense for certain offenders from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction. Currently, an adult 21 years of age or older may possess, use or transfer one ounce or less of marijuana in East Lansing while on private property.
Lee said these changes have lightened the mood quite a bit regarding the use of a substance he has enjoyed for many years.
“People are a bit more free, and in a lot of ways it’s treated kind of like alcohol now," Lee said. "It’s just more of a social, ‘Hey, I hate being drunk so I’ll smoke instead and still be able to have a good time with people.’ In a lot of ways it hasn’t changed that way, but people have definitely come out of, say, the closet for what they do, being able to say, ‘This is who I am, this is what I like.’”
Psychology senior Olivia, sharing a joint with Lee, said decriminalization has relaxed the public attitude toward marijuana.
"It just becomes a lot more prevalent every time these types of things are (relaxed)," Olivia said. "I think it was a good thing for people to get talking about it.”
East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows said there is some belief that the city has been difficult in regards to marijuana policy, but the city has long been one among Michigan's most lenient communities. Meadows has been the city's mayor since 2015, and was one of four "yes" votes that passed the 2016 decriminalization ordinance.
“We had a pretty informal policy as a result of some state changes, but East Lansing and Ann Arbor have been the two most liberal communities in the state of Michigan in terms of marijuana policy for many years," Meadows said. “Nothing really has changed very much … it is simply decriminalized. The enforcement of the state statute was not really happening even before that for a number of reasons."
At some point during the end of his first tenure on council, which extended from 1995 to 2006, state law superseded a longtime East Lansing ordinance under which enforcement amounted to $25 "appearance tickets" for possession of under an ounce of marijuana, Meadows said. East Lansing's current ordinance operates similar to this, with any violations for under an ounce garnering a maximum fine of $25 and no more than 45 days of community service.
“After the state law said we couldn’t do that anymore, we just simply stopped writing tickets,” Meadows said. “There probably were some tickets that were written during that time period, my guess is they were written under the state (law) because there was more than just a mere quantity issue involved.”
The city's leniency does not change the fact that marijuana possession or use is still illegal on a state and federal level. East Lansing Police Department Chief Jeff Murphy said describing the city's ordinance as "decriminalization" could cause some people to get themselves in trouble.
“If somebody hears 'decriminalization,' if I hear that, I think that it means that it’s legal, and marijuana is by no means legal in East Lansing,” Murphy said. “There’s still a lot of laws related to marijuana, such as possession with intent to deliver, that are felonies.”
Since the change in ordinance, Murphy said ELPD has spent much more time preventing citizens from being misled about marijuana laws than anything else involving them.
From Jan. 1 to April 14, ELPD has only issued five marijuana-related tickets, Murphy said. Murphy said he believes this number is low, but didn't have the numbers to be certain.
According to weekly case and arrest reports published to the city's website, only two marijuana possession related incidents occurred between Oct. 11, 2016, when council passed the latest ordinance, and Jan. 1, 2017. From March 14 to Oct. 10, 2016, 20 marijuana related incidents are mentioned: 16 for possession, three for selling, and one for use. Between May 5, 2015, when voters approved a decriminalization proposal, and March 14, 2016, only one marijuana "appearance citation" is mentioned. During the latter period, only weekend reports are available.
“It’s kind of a dangerous way of doing it because people are going to hear that and they’re going to get lulled into a false sense of security. … If you’re talking about decriminalization, somebody’s going to think ‘Well, it’s legal, so why can’t I sit on this park bench downtown and smoke it?’ and they’re going to get themselves in trouble for it,” Murphy said.
The discrepancy between state and local laws can also cause trouble when popular events are held in the city.
“We have probably between 10 and a dozen events a year … where we don’t have enough police officers employed here to keep everybody in the city safe, so we have outside police departments come in to help us,” Murphy said. “Those departments do not enforce East Lansing city ordinances, a lot of them enforce state laws, and so one of those officers may go, for whatever reason, into a house and find somebody smoking marijuana where again they’re thinking … it’s perfectly legal, but if they choose to enforce state law somebody’s still getting a ticket or getting arrested.”
Major sports events and holidays ,such as Halloween and St. Patrick's Day, can prompt ELPD to bring in help from Michigan State Police, Meridian Township Police Department, the Ingham County Sheriff's Office and others who might not enforce marijuana as leniently as East Lansing. East Lansing's ordinances also do not apply to the MSU Police Department, who will often help the city with these events, Murphy said.
Though Michigan's marijuana laws continue to supersede East Lansing's, change might be on the horizon that would render any decriminalization ordinances obsolete.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Michigan in some capacity since 2008, and is set to expand in the near future. Though a federal court ruling defeated an effort to put marijuana legalization on Michigan's ballot for the 2016 election, Sen. Curtis Hertel, Jr. (D-East Lansing) said he believes legalization could be in Michigan's near future. A recent poll found 57 percent of respondents leaned toward supporting the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan, MLive reports.
“I think that most people are resigned to the fact that legalization is probably happening sometime soon,” Hertel said. “I do believe there’ll be a referendum on the ballot next year, and I think it will probably pass. I think the public opinion on marijuana has changed dramatically, and so I think it’s probably likely at some point to pass.”
An East Lansing resident and MSU alumnus, Hertel said he thinks every city has a right to determine how their law enforcement treats certain situations and doesn't disagree with the marijuana ordinance.
“There obviously needs to be tests that are being developed right now to see if someone’s directly under the influence and those things because they’re driving, but I think that in my opinion the state should start moving towards those policies because in reality that’s where we’re going to be," Hertel said.
Hertel said he doesn't see any major negatives stemming from the potential legalization of recreational marijuana, and those who believe legalization will increase marijuana use don't realize the reality that marijuana is currently not difficult to acquire.
“Quite frankly, the reality is if you wanted to get a medical marijuana card it is not difficult in Michigan to get one," Hertel said. "The people that want to smoke marijuana already are, so I don’t see a major increase in problems stemming from it at all.”
Instead, Hertel sees potential positives that could come with marijuana legalization at the state level, the first of which would hopefully be an influx of tax revenue, he said.
“As a state that’s been on flat budgets for almost a decade now, (we) certainly could use some more funding for things like K-12 and higher education … or roads,” Hertel said. “It’s not going to solve every problem … but it would certainly bring in hundreds of millions of dollars that the state could actually invest in things like infrastructure and schools, it’s a good thing.”
Hertel said he also believes legalization will save the state money on incarceration.
“Anytime you look at the incarceration rates among people that have simple marijuana possession, spending $35,000 a year to house someone as opposed to not having to do that obviously will save money,” Hertel said. “That’s the issue. Certainly for more dangerous drugs you want to make sure that access is difficult, but for something like marijuana, while I’m not advocating for someone using it, I don’t think it has a significantly different result on someone than alcohol does, so I don’t see the reason to spend a lot of money as a state (on banning marijuana) when we can use it as an industry. We’ve already done that with medical marijuana for a long time in Michigan."