East Lansing marijuana decriminalization a step backward for pot smokers

Although the May 5 passage of the marijuana amendment to East Lansing’s city charter seemed like both a victory for those citizens in favor and a message to the state government, the new amendment could have a negative effect on East Lansing and marijuana offenders.

The new charter amendment restricts the city from having any local regulations regarding the use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, or the transportation of the same amount, by a person at least 21 years old.

While the public voted to locally decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in East Lansing, East Lansing police Lt. Steve Gonzalez said the police will act under state law and continue to monitor the use and possession of marijuana no differently than they have in the past.

Harsher Punishments

This symbolic amendment seems to create a situation that is worse for those charged with possession or use of marijuana, since being arrested or cited under state law, rather than the previous local city ordinance, carries potentially stricter and more costly punishments for offenders of the state law.

East Lansing city attorney Thomas Yeadon said the fines imposed under the city ordinance were “significantly less than what is going to be the state statute fines.”

Under the former city ordinance, a first-time offender charged with possession or use of marijuana would face a maximum punishment of a $25 fine plus court costs, with no risk of jail time, 54B District Court Chief Judge Andrea Andrews Larkin said via email.

These offenders did have the option of agreeing to a plea agreement which would put them in a diversion program under city ordinance, Yeadon said.

Larkin said via email that state laws differentiate between use and possession, with first-time marijuana use offenders facing up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $100 plus court costs. A first-time offender of Michigan’s possession of marijuana laws, however, could see up to one year in jail and/or a maximum fine of $2,000 plus court costs.

A diversion program is also available under state law for first-time offenders, and typically consists of some form of probation for the offender, which can consist of community service, drug testing and reporting to a probation officer on a regular basis, Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III said.
Merely Symbolic

Council members Ruth Beier and Kathleen Boyle said they view the passage of this proposal as more of a symbolic change, rather than one that will have a large impact.

“I think it is safe to say state-wide that East Lansing thinks it is irrational to prosecute people for small amounts of marijuana and not prosecute people for alcohol,” Beier said.

Boyle added that she views it as a ground-up movement to decriminalize marijuana.

“I feel like their hope is, if you have enough of this (marijuana decriminalization) at enough local government levels than both the state legislature and Congress will reexamine the state and federal prohibition and that might spur some meaningful change,” Boyle said.

Beier said the message might hold more weight if the police chose to enforce the local law over the state law, but the city council does not feel comfortable telling the police chief to ignore state law.

“It would hold a lot more weight, but I don’t know if we have the stomach for telling our police to ignore the state law,” Beier said.

Until such a time comes that Michigan decides, as a state, to decriminalize marijuana, city officials are concerned the passage of this proposal in East Lansing could provide a false sense of security.

“They need to know that the risk of using marijuana – (although) it doesn’t violate the city ordinance – if they are not medical marijuana users, might violate the state statute, and it might violate federal law,” Boyle said. “But when you talk about something being decriminalized when there are still criminal statutes that govern the conduct, it hasn’t been decriminalized.”
Potential City Revenue Loss

In addition to stricter punishments for offenders, the City of East Lansing could also see a small loss in revenue formerly gained from the fees and court costs assessed by the judges.

When cited for possession or use of marijuana under the city ordinance, the offender would be prosecuted by the city attorney, with the fines and court costs going to the city treasury, while a separate state-mandated case’s costs would go to the state treasury, Larkin said.

Meanwhile, being cited for use or possession under state law, as will now occur, the offender would be prosecuted by the Ingham County prosecuting attorney and the fines imposed by the court would go to state libraries, while the court costs remain with the city and the separate state-mandated cost still going to the state treasury, Larkin said.

So while the city will continue to spend money on policing the use and possession of marijuana under state law, the city will be losing some of the money it received back from fines imposed upon offenders.

Beier, however, points out that while the city could lose some revenue, they will not have to pay the city attorney to prosecute, which reduces, if not eliminates the loss.

“I don’t think it would be, given the number we actually did pursue last year, I don’t think the dollar amount is important, no,” Beier said. “That is actually a point I don’t know if the police have taken into account.”

Boyle said the East Lansing City Council did not create the proposal, but it was brought to them through a citizen petition to put this proposal on the ballot.

Boyle said she personally did not see this as a way to make any real progress or change.

“I don’t see this as us doing something that truly made any difference for people,” Boyle said. “It needs to happen at the state and federal level; marijuana needs not to be a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law to really have any change.”

Source: State News