State Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor introduces a bill that would decriminalize marijuana during a press conference at the Michigan Capitol on April 24, 2013.
LANSING, MI — Democratic state Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor wants to decriminalize marijuana in Michigan, and at least two Republicans agree that it’s time to have the debate.
Irwin, who represents a city that enacted a similar policy decades ago, introduced a bill today that would make the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a fine rather than a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
“We know, and the people here in Michigan know, that marijuana prohibition is not working,” Irwin said today during a press conference at the Capitol.
“Despite the fact that we’re spending a minimum of $325 million a year on arresting, trying and incarcerating marijuana users in this state, we know marijuana has never been more available. We know that law enforcement has not been successful at keeping marijuana out of the hands of anyone in this state.”
Irwin was joined at the press conference by a group of marijuana decriminalization advocates and bipartisan co-sponsors, including Democratic Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright of Muskegon and Republican Reps. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake and Mike Callton of Nashville.
“This is the right time to have this debate in Michigan,” said Shirkey, who agreed to co-sponsor the bill in order to guarantee bipartisan support but is concerned that the version introduced today does not differentiate between adult and minor possession, which he’d like to see changed.
“We’re using a lot of money, energy and resources in Michigan and across the nation to accomplish something we’ve failed at,” he said. “If government has a primary role, it is to protect people’s freedom. That doesn’t mean we have unfettered freedom … but the best government, by and large, is a smaller, less restraining government.”
Callton, who recently introduced legislation to allow medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan, said he believes the drug is less harmful than alcohol and does not understand why it continues to be treated as a “taboo.”
Irwin offered a similar comparison: “Alcohol prohibition also didn’t work,” he said, referring the federal policy that ended in 1933. “And when we adopted a more sane, and may I say sober policy for alcohol, we were better able to control it and keep it out of the hands of our children.”
While he expects opposition from law enforcement officials, Irwin suggested that officers on the front lines of the drug war may have different opinions than their bosses. Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major now serving as executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, called the bill “a sensible first step toward a more humane and just criminal justice system in Michigan.”
Seventeen states have adopted some type of marijuana decriminalization law, including Washington and Colorado, where voters recently approved ballot measures to legalize recreational use. The Michigan bill would not legalize the drug, but it would change the penalty for small-time possession from possible jail time to a fine of $25 for a first offense, $50 for a second offense or $75 for a third offense.
“This is nothing radical,” said Tim Beck of the Coalition for a Safer Michigan. “We’d only be doing what a lot of very sensible legislators and voters have done in other states.”
Beck spearheaded the 2008 statewide ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Michigan, and he recently led a successful decriminalization initiative in Detroit. Voters in Grand Rapids, Flint and Ypsilanti also approved municipal decriminalization measures last year, but Beck believes the Legislature is better suited to craft public policy.
Republican co-sponsors do not guarantee Irwin’s bill will see a vote, let alone a committee hearing. The House GOP has other priorities right now, according to spokesperson Ari Adler, but leadership is not ruling out an eventual debate.
“It will go through the committee process, but we’re not going to close the door on having the discussion,” Adler said. “There are a lot of important issues that we have to deal with first.”
This post was syndicated from MLive