Pubdate: Wed, 30 May 2012
Source: Metro Times (Detroit, MI)
Column: Higher Ground
Copyright: 2012 C.E.G.W./Times-Shamrock
Author: Larry Gabriel


Would Detroiters vote to, practically speaking, legalize the 
possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults on private property?

That choice may be on the November ballot if the Committee for a 
Safer Detroit (CSD) gets a favorable ruling from the Michigan Supreme 
Court. CSD's case against the Detroit Election Commission stems from 
a 2010 petition initiative to put the question on that year's ballot. 
The Detroit Election Commission refused to put the question on the 
ballot claiming that the proposal conflicts with state law and 
therefore couldn't be on the ballot. The CSD sued the city in Circuit 
Court and the judge ruled in favor of the city. CSD then appealed the 
decision and the state Court of Appeals ruled against the city 
2-1  saying it wasn't up to the commission to decide if the proposal 
is against state law. Now the city has appealed to the state Supreme Court.

If the high court declines to hear the case or decides in favor of 
the CSD it will be on the fall ballot. The CSD's Tim Beck is feeling 
pretty good about the chances of that happening, and about winning 
the subsequent election. Detroiters voted 78 percent in favor of 
medical marijuana in 2008, compared to 66 percent in favor statewide. 
But will that translate into a majority in favor of across-the-board 
legalization? It's hard to say, no polls have been taken specifically 
in Detroit and there is a big drop-off of support when you move from 
medical marijuana to legalization of marijuana. National polls show 
about 75 percent of Americans support medical marijuana, but a recent 
Rasmussen poll found 56 percent support legalizing it for recreational use.

"It was very, very easy to get the signatures on the petitions," says 
Beck. "We got them in three weeks. I watched the petitioners at 
Farmer John's market at Conner and Gratiot. People were like, 'Yes, 
I'll sign that.' I think there is a very strong differential in the 
public mind that there has to be better uses of police resources than 
for small time drug crime. Police resources are diminishing pretty 
rapidly in Detroit. ...It is only my intuition, but I do believe it's 
going to win overwhelmingly in Detroit."

There aren't any polls out there gauging the attitude of Detroiters 
or of African-Americans in general. Detroiters are about 90 percent 
black. And while African-Americans tend to be socially conservative 
witness the furor over President Obama's support for gay marriage 
there seems to be growing support for a legalize marijuana position.

"I think that word is finally getting out; I think you're going to 
see a major shift regarding the African-American view on the drug 
war," says Neil Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement 
Against Prohibition (LEAP), a national organization of former and 
current police officers.

Franklin cites the popularity of Michelle Alexander's book The New 
Jim Crow, which argues that the War on Drugs and its unequal 
enforcement in the black community creates a permanent underclass of 
people who have been arrested for minor drug violations. Although 
studies show that whites and blacks consume marijuana at about the 
same rate, blacks and Hispanics are arrested for it at three times 
the rate that white people are.

In addition, Franklin points out that the NAACP called for an end to 
the drug war last July during its national convention (though you 
wouldn't know it from the Detroit chapter's MIA status on the issue), 
work of the Chicago-based Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (a group 
of progressive African-American faith leaders), and the Institute of 
the Black World 21st Century, a group whose mission is: "committed to 
building the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. to work for 
the social, political, economic and cultural upliftment, the 
development of the global Black community and an enhanced quality of 
life for all marginalized people."

"They're building networks in several cities," Franklin says of the 
21st Century group. "This kind of work didn't exist a year or 18 
months ago. It's only the beginning. ... [NAACP President] Ben 
Jealous continues to speak out on this issue as well."

Maybe getting the question on the ballot in Detroit is the real 
fight. Even Michigan State University sociologist Cart Taylor, who 
has been a vocal opponent of marijuana, often citing its effect on 
his students, concedes that the majority of Detroit voters would 
legalize marijuana.

"It will pass," says Taylor. "To me it is already legalized in terms 
of a norm, not just in Detroit but in the whole nation. It's very 
much part of the fabric of this nation. To pretend that it is not 
there is foolish. ... I think the main thrust of it will be pushed by 
youth culture. Many of them feel like, 'What's the big deal? 
Marijuana is here.'"

Maybe folks at the Detroit Election Commission felt that keeping it 
off the ballot was their last defense against marijuana because, 
given a choice, people will probably vote for it. That would probably 
be the case in other majority black urban communities across the 
nation. The reason is pointed out in Alexander's book and is also 
discussed in another book, Don't Shoot by David M. Kennedy: Black 
people are tired of seeing their youth terrorized by police and the 
legal system, and many are unwilling to cooperate with what seems 
like an occupying force.

"Police don't even protect the information which protects the person 
who gave it to them," says LEAP's Franklin. "They end up being 
victims of retaliation. In addition they don't trust because police 
go into these communities and are constantly searching everything 
that moves. Citizens see the police pulling down the pants of guys in 
the street. They see all these arrests for frivolous reasons  failure 
to obey a police officer when what the police are doing is not 
lawful. ... Citizens don't trust the police any more. You can't be 
effective in solving crime in that community if you don't have the 
buy in of the people."

Maybe people aren't buying into the drug war when they see the 
biggest harms being caused by the people who are supposed to be 
upholding the law. The law does not stop the demand, and where there 
is a demand someone will provide the supply.

So while folks are trying to fix Detroit, maybe the trust of the 
people could use a little shoring up. Maybe the relationship between 
the police and the community needs to be fixed. Stopping the penny 
ante marijuana busts would help. And if the police won't stop it, 
give the people a choice and they probably will.

The campaign to put the question of legalizing marijuana in Michigan 
on the fall ballot soldiers on. Whenever I ask folks from the 
Coalition for a Safer Michigan how its going, they talk about the 
many volunteers they have out there  about 2,500. However, they don't 
brag about how many signatures they have. They need some 322,000-plus 
valid signatures by July 9 in order to make the fall ballot. A few 
publications have published numbers that have leaked from CSM show 
that the organization has well below 100,000 in hand. The drive could 
still be successful, but it's not looking good right now.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom