Pubdate: Sun, 10 Mar 2013
Source: Herald-Palladium, The (St. Joseph, MI)
Copyright: 2013 The Herald-Palladium
Author: Scott Aiken


Over the past year, Howard Wooldridge's job has gotten easier.

The former Lansing area police officer spent the past 16 years working
to decriminalize marijuana and other drugs, at times taking his horse
on long rides around the country to publicize the cause.

A lobbyist for Citizens Opposing Prohibition, an organization he
formed, Wooldridge rubs elbows with congressional aides, trying to get
them to convince their bosses to end a drug war that costs the country
$82 billion a year.

It's been a long haul for Wooldridge and at times the lack of progress
weighed heavily. But public support for a marijuana ban may be fading
as more states approve medical marijuana laws and others decriminalize
it. One-third of Americans now live in states that allow marijuana use
to treat medical conditions.

"I talk about the drudgery of my job but now I literally have a spring
in my step," Wooldridge said in a phone interview. "At the aide level,
the resistance to my message is a mathematical zero. You can feel the
wind at your back."

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., now allow medical marijuana.
Voters in Colorado and Washington in November decriminalized
possession of small amounts. Oregon voters rejected a similar
proposal. At the same time, four major Michigan cities - Detroit,
Flint, Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti - decriminalized the drug, though
use, possession and selling remain illegal under state and federal

Kalamazoo voters backed changes in the law that allow the city to
license three medical marijuana dispensaries.

This year, proponents are working to get decriminalization measures on
the ballot in Lansing and Jackson.

>From 2005 until 2009, Wooldridge worked as a Capitol Hill lobbyist
for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of former
cops and others who saw the drug war as doing more harm as good.

When he lost his LEAP position he formed his own group, aiming to
convince 535 members of Congress that police have more important work
to do than "flying around in helicopters looking for a green plant.

"I go to each congressional office once each year with a 15-minute
presentation. I've worn out three sets of boots.

On his horse, Misty, he campaigns in states considering
decriminalization issues. Last year he was in Colorado to support
Amendment 64, the legalization initiative that voters approved.

While states are taking action, he does not see Congress moving to
drop marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Marijuana
possession has been prohibited by federal law since 1937.

But in brief elevator conversations with congressmen of both parties,
Wooldridge hears encouraging things.

"A month ago a guy (representing a southeastern state) said it's a
horrible waste of money," Wooldridge said.

"They know this is a failure. They know what the right course is.
However, there is the political calculus: Is it safe to vote for good
policy," he said.

Earlier in his life, Wooldridge was a patrol officer and detective for
18 years in DeWitt and Bath townships in Clinton County.

He got the nickname "Highway Howie" for his strict enforcement of
drunken driving laws, but said his experience showed him that drug
laws and enforcement practices were misguided.

Detroit attorney Matthew Abel, executive director of Michigan NORML, a
40-year-old organization that works to change public opinion enough to
bring about repeal of marijuana prohibition.

Abel headed last year's failed effort to place a ballot initiative for
decriminalization before Michigan voters. Organizers pulled the plug
last summer when it became clear the drive for petition signatures
would fall short.

"Our failure was not a question of it not being politically
acceptable, but there was no money to get out advertising and
support," Abel said.

The campaign leading to the successful 2008 ballot initiative to allow
medical marijuana in Michigan cost about $1.5 million. The measure
passed with 63 percent approval, clearing by a margin of more than 1.2
million votes.

The measure does not legalize marijuana, but allows an exemption from
prosecution for people who qualify for certain medical conditions and
obtain a state-issued card.

Abel said he believes state residents are ready to go further and that
a legalization measure could appear on the 2014 ballot.

"The problem is that the Legislature is way behind the political will
of the people and needs to catch up," Abel said.

As residents of cities vote in change, Abel said lawmakers ought to
take notice.

"Enforcing laws for prohibition is counterproductive and wastes
resources needed to fight real crime," he said. "When you ask people
what they think, they think it should stop."

Abel's firm of four lawyers handles criminal defense in cases of
marijuana possession and distribution.

A losing war?

Marijuana arrests have been dropping but the number in 2011 remained
more than double what it was in 1991, according to the FBI.

The agency's 2011 uniform crime report shows 757,969 arrests
nationwide for marijuana that year, or about 86.5 per hour. Of them,
663,032 were for possession only and the rest for sale or

The numbers compare to more than 800,000 annually for the period of
2006-10, and 289,000 in 1991. In 1966, marijuana arrests nationwide
totaled about 17,500 - or two an hour.

Advocates for canceling the federal government's 75-year-old pot
prohibition say the enforcement effort targets a drug not shown to be
harmful, and at great cost to taxpayers and families.

While the intent of the law is to protect young people from its
effects, youths have little trouble finding marijuana, which has
become more powerful, according to COPS, Wooldridge's

An arrest for marijuana possession can tag a person with a felony
conviction that stands in the way of employment and results in loss of
car, cash or other property through civil forfeiture.

Activists say the marijuana ban plays into the hands of drug cartels.
The business of supplying marijuana is extremely lucrative for the
Mexican cartels, which are responsible for an estimated 60,000 deaths
in their country.

Wooldridge estimates that legalization in Colorado and Washington will
cost the cartels 3-4 percent of their business, likely a cause of
concern for them.

COPS puts the cost of enforcement in the U.S. at $82 billion a year,
including incarceration expenses. Michigan spends more than $2 billion
a year on corrections, greater than higher eduction spending.

Nationwide, about 70 percent of state prisoners are serving time for
"crimes touching prohibition," Wooldridge said.

Activists are quick to point out similarities between the marijuana
ban and alcohol prohibition in the U.S., which lasted from 1920 to

Brought on by reformers, the effort to make the country dry came in
with the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and ended with adoption of
the 21st Amendment.

Prohibition prevented few people from getting a drink but handed over
the business of supplying beer and liquor to gangsters and ushered in
a bloody, violent era.

Charmie Gholson of Ann Arbor served on the Committee for a Safer
Michigan, which promoted last year's attempt at a Michigan ballot
initiative. She said the effort to end marijuana prohibition is
gaining steam.

Her father was a police officer and she worked as a staff writer for
COPS. She's also a founder of Michigan Moms United to End the War on

"Our goal is to educate the media and public on how the drug war
destroys families," she said.

Around the state, she said, the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act is
showing people that they were "lied to about marijuana for a long
time," and that law enforcement reactions are "over the top. "They
realize the policy made it worse than the prohibition."

The organization is working now to change forfeiture laws. Gholson
said they provide a major source of income for police agencies, even
if nobody is convicted of a drug crime.

And government on every level pours money into drug enforcement
without much oversight, she said.

"I started yelling about these things 10 years ago, and now they're in
mainstream conversation," Gholson said.

While advocates for legalization point to the high cost and human toll
of marijuana prohibition, many Michigan residents continue to support
the ban.

An EPIC-MRA poll conducted in Janury 2012 for the Detroit Free Press
and WXYZ-TV showed that 50 percent of the 600-person sample oppose
legalization while 45 percent were in favor and 5 percent were undecided.

Other polls show greater support on a nationwide basis.

A Rasmussen poll conducted in May showed that 56 percent of those
questioned favor legalizing and regulating marijuana, similar to the
way alcohol and tobacco is handled.

Thirty-six percent opposed legalization with regulation. Other
national polls have shown similar results.

Tim Beck of Detroit, a retired insurance executive who has been a
longtime marijuana decriminalization activist, said the "reality of
medical marijuana" is leading people to question the continued ban.
"Why not just make it legal and get it out of the hands of the
criminal market?" he said.

While a statewide ballot initiative is possible in 2014, Beck does not
believe it will happen. Polls prior to the 2008 medical marijuana vote
showed 59 percent public support, he said, but the numbers for
legalization today are around 50 percent, too low to mount a major
fundraising campaign.

A bill has been introduced in the state House to decriminalize small
amounts of marijuana for personal use.

At the same time, activists are continuing efforts to win approval in
cities, though such backing has limited impact. A city ordinance is
subordinate to state law, which means police remain free to make arrests.

Beck said he's hopeful the fears will lessen "when people see that
hell has not broken out in these towns."

Behind California, Michigan is the largest state to approve a medical
marijuana law. Only 23 states have provisions allowing citizen ballot

Nothing in federal law has changed regarding marijuana enforcement,
though the Obama administration has said enforcement related to
medical use laws in states is not a high priority.
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