BY BILL LAITNER
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
A Detroiter who helped lead the drive to allow medical marijuana in Michigan is pushing for something bound to be equally controversial: legalizing pot in the city of Detroit.
You’ve done a great job,” meeting the detailed filing requirements, City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Wednesday as Tim Beck handed over more than 6,100 petition signatures.
Beck, 58, spent five weeks overseeing the collection of many more than the 3,700 signatures needed to get Detroit’s November ballot to include his proposal. It would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of pot on private property by adults 21 and older.
City officials must certify the petition signatures in the next 10 days, and then the City Council has 30 days to pass the proposal or send it to voters this fall, Elections Director Daniel Baxter said.
“We’re quite sure we’re in conformity with state law and the city charter,” said Beck, a veteran of successful drives to approve medical marijuana in five Michigan cities and ultimately statewide.
If his proposal passes, Detroit would follow Denver in legalizing possession of pot.
“It’s a good year for this because it’s also on the ballot in California,” said Beck, a medical marijuana user. California voters this fall could vote to treat marijuana like alcohol.
Battle lines drawn on legalizing marijuana
The possibility that Detroit voters could legalize marijuana possession this fall has the supporters of liberal drug laws taking on the staunch advocates of America’s war on drugs.
Supporters of the proposal say it would free police to go after violent criminals, ease jail crowding and even encourage a safe alternative to alcohol. Some criminal justice and medical experts dispute those ideas.
“Our feeling is, how do we put an end to the drug war? This would be a step,” said attorney and medical marijuana user Matthew Abel, 51, of Detroit.
Abel, along with Detroit health insurance firm owner Tim Beck and real-estate scion David Farbman, pooled $10,000 to pay the legal, printing and labor costs for drafting the proposal, launching a Web site (www.saferdetroit.net) and getting petition signatures, Abel said. They turned in more than 6,100 signatures Wednesday to Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, they said.
Legalizing pot in Detroit wouldn’t affect existing laws against driving while impaired and still wouldn’t safeguard marijuana users from arrest under state law, Beck said.
“But we’re hopeful the city would honor the people’s wishes and not go after someone possessing a small amount,” he said. The proposal would allow possession of up to an ounce of pot on private property in Detroit by anyone 21 or older.
Michigan’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Mike Cox, said in a statement that the Detroit proposal would change nothing about how drug laws should be enforced in the state’s largest city.
“There can’t be some kind of zone or island of non-enforcement, just because a city decrees it,” Cox spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.
Detroit Police Chief Warren Evans was unavailable for comment Wednesday. Deputy Chief John Roach said that Evans would need to see the legalization proposal before he could comment.
But Roach said Evans “absolutely made it our focus to go after the mid-level and upper-level drug suppliers” and not marijuana users, although “we do encounter the lower-level people all the time, so we need to look at this issue.”
To submit the Detroit proposal, which still must be approved by election officials before it can go on the November ballot, petition gatherers like Fritzel Stanley, 59, of Detroit got thousands of residents to sign petitions this spring.
“Once I explain this to people, they’re in agreement with it, overwhelmingly,” Stanley said, as he sat last month at a card table inside Farmer John’s Market on Detroit’s east side.
A U.S. Army veteran, Stanley said he quit using marijuana “when I left Vietnam” in 1970, “but I think it should be legal.”
Petition signers Roderick Harris, 48, and Richard Smyth, 55, both Detroiters, said they agreed with him.
“When liquor was against the law, they bootlegged it. Marijuana is no different,” Smyth said. He said he paid a $1,000 fine and spent 90 days in jail for marijuana possession three decades ago.
Although still in a small minority, a growing group of political figures and leaders in metro Detroit — from Democrats to Libertarians to a few Republicans — said possession of marijuana should be legal.
Last month, in a breakfast forum at the Detroit Athletic Club, Compuware founder Peter Karmanos called for legalizing drugs to reduce crime.
State Rep. LaMar Lemmons, a Democrat from Detroit, said he helped write the new proposal. “I’d like our police to concentrate on violent crimes,” Lemmons said.
Lemmons said he doesn’t want to encourage marijuana use in public, but believes that people using it at home should be left alone.
“When Tim (Beck) was crafting the legislation, I did suggest that he put that caveat in — about the private property,” Lemmons said.
Former state Rep. Leon Drolet of Macomb Township calls himself “a very proud Libertarian Republican” who favors legalization.
“We all make decisions about our health, whether it’s drinking alcohol or having a slice of cake. There’s lots of things people choose to do because they feel, in some way, it enhances their quality of life,” he said.
“And unless they’re infringing on anybody else’s life or liberty, I can’t imagine why we would prosecute them,” Drolet said as he campaigned this week for state senator in north Macomb County.
Legal experts differ about the impact of local marijuana ordinances, amid rapidly changing attitudes that run right to the White House. Last fall, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. Justice Department to stop using federal resources for prosecuting medical-marijuana cases.
Some cities have directed their police not to arrest people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, Wayne State University Law School professor Robert Sedler said.
“They can’t actually make it legal, but they do have the power to instruct their police,” Sedler said.
Medical and research experts disagree about whether marijuana is addictive; is less likely than alcohol to cause health problems or violence; is a gateway drug that leads to heroin, cocaine and other abuse, or has health benefits.
“Right now, we cannot look into the medical uses of marijuana” because it’s illegal in Michigan for anyone but approved medical marijuana patients and their caregivers, Michigan State University criminal justice professor Sheila Maxwell said.
“So, there are no clinical trials going on,” Maxwell said.