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Three Michigan cities will vote on marijuana decriminalization ballot questions next week

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio
A campaign sign for Jackson's marijuana decriminalization ballot question

On Tuesday, voters in Jackson, Ferndale and Lansing will decide if they want their police departments to focus less on busting people for small amounts of marijuana.

The results should tell us something about whether Michigan is getting more comfortable with pot.  

In Jackson, Steve Sharpe says volunteers have been handing out fliers and signs, talking with prospective voters and encouraging supporters to get out and vote.   

He admits he’s been waiting for opposition that so far hasn’t appeared.

“No one’s come to me and complained about this,” says Sharpe, who adds when he’s asked if he’s surprised by the lack of a sizable opposition, “I am totally surprised.”

Jackson’s police department is not actively opposing the decriminalizing measure.

But Police Chief Matthews Heins says if the measure passes, it could cause some problems.

He says it would force his officers to navigate a confusing mix of conflicting local, state and federal marijuana laws.

“It’s a never ending process to try to keep the officers abreast …what is the most recent legislation…what is the most recent court decisions,” says Heins.

Voters in Detroit, Ypsilanti, Flint and Grand Rapids have passed similar ballot questions in recent years.

The effect of the new local laws is unclear.

In part, that’s because they’ve only been on the books for short time. Also, possession of small amounts of marijuana is already a low priority for most police departments.

Tim Beck is the chairman of the Safer Michigan Coalition, an umbrella organization working with local groups to pass new pot laws. He says he’s confident voters in Jackson, Ferndale and Lansing will vote to decriminalize marijuana.

Beck says all you have to do is look to Colorado and Washington State.  Last year, voters in those states voted to legalize marijuana. He says the votes are examples of shifting public attitudes.

"When people see the result that nothing has radically changed.  In fact, there’s money going into the state coffers.  That’s big," says Beck, "It eliminates a lot of the bugaboos…Reefer Madness and the scare tactics that have been used for years."

And a recent poll suggests Beck might be right. 

Back in October, pollsters asked 600 likely Michigan voters their opinions of marijuana. Forty-one percent said pot should be legalized. Another 24% of people polled said it should be treated like a speeding ticket. 

Steve Mitchell is with Mitchell Research, one of the firms that conducted the poll.

“This is pretty strong support for changing the present system we have,” says Mitchell. 

If Michigan moves in the direction of lessening penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, it will definitely change things.

Jackson Police Chief Matthew Heins may have gotten a glimpse of what the state would look like a recent trip to Seattle.

“It struck me as odd; I’m walking down a street in a populated municipality with adults and young kids, just a complete mix of people, and here are people smoking marijuana in public,” says Heins, “It was foreign to me.”

But it’s a scene that may become common in Michigan if the state makes a major change to its marijuana laws.    

There’s a bill in the Legislature to decriminalize marijuana in Michigan.

If that fails to pass by the end of next year, marijuana supporters say they might put the question on the statewide ballot in 2016.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Radio since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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