State laws legalizing marijuana take a first step toward nullifying federal prohibition, but they don’t do the job alone. Effective marijuana reform policy requires everyday people to take action and remain vigilant.
Federal marijuana prohibition relies on state and local enforcement. FBI statistics show that police make approximately 99 of 100 marijuana arrests under state, not federal law. When states legalize cannabis, it removes the basis for most enforcement actions. Prohibition falls apart when the state eliminates that lawyer of law. This leads to nullification of the federal ban in effect. The feds can’t maintain prohibition alone. But this strategy falls apart if state and local law enforcement continue to cooperate with the feds, or if they sabotage and undermine state law by aggressive enforcement actions of their own.
According to one activist, this is exactly the situation in Michigan.
Michigan voters approved the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act in 2008 by a 63-37 margin. The law allows patients with qualifying conditions to obtain a medical card authorizing them to access and possesses medicinal cannabis. Each patient must have a “primary caregiver” who may assist no more than five qualifying patients with their medical use of marijuana. A patient can also become qualified as a caregiver.
Dana Carver has worked as a marijuana activist in the Great Lakes state for years. She said “the law itself is great.” But Attorney General Bill Schuette declared war on medical marijuana, and he has directed law enforcement to aggressively police medical marijuana. As a result, many patients authorized to possess medicinal cannabis find themselves prosecuted due to strict interpretations of the statute. Carver said some of these executive branch directives actually run counter to language in the law itself.
Schuette actually led the fight against the ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana. Carver said enforcement during his tenure as AG has made the state medical marijuana program almost useless.
“He said when he was running he was going to take apart the marijuana law,” she said. “They’re doing anything they can to make the law not work.”
Carver said police aggressively prosecute medical marijuana card holders for technical violations of rules on storing and transporting cannabis. She said the “primary caregiver” program also creates problems because of a shortage of qualified people. As a result, patients sometimes go to individuals other than their official caregiver to obtain the marijuana they need. Police swoop in and arrest them, even though they have a legal right to possess the drug.
Carver said state police conduct raids “daily.”
Carver said she has also seen an uptick in state police cooperating with federal agents on raids. She said asset forfeiture money and federal drug enforcement grants to the tune of $70 to $80 annually incentivize police to prosecute medical marijuana patients on any basis they can come up with.
Carver said in the current environment, any “law” will likely fail. She has instead focused her attention on a ballot initiative to “abrogate” all state marijuana laws.
“We need to just take it back to before 1937,” she said.
A coalition of activists called MILegalize supports a more limited ballot measure that would legalize all marijuana use by people over 21 in the state, but would also create a scheme to tax and regulate the plant.
Michigan teaches us important lessons. Passing a law isn’t enough. Activists must continue to push forward with new measures to loosen state restrictions that inevitably evolve and facilitate a growing market. We’ve seen this strategy effectively applied in Oregon and Colorado. Activists must also hold elected officials accountable and make sure state law enforcement doesn’t undermine good law.
Individual action, business action and well-written state legislation all work together to successfully undermine marijuana prohibition. If any aspect if the strategy is missing, it will lead to problems like we see in Michigan today.
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