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


Cotter Says Medical Marijuana Is Too Easy to Get

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 law.

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 

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 manufacture. 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 organization.

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 
1933. 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 Drugs.

"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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom