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Sorting out the confusion over local marijuana laws, Ann Arbor's experience

courtesy of Leni Sinclair

It starts this week in Grand Rapids.

As of May 1st, 2013, if you celebrate 4:20, you’re less likely to get jail time.

Instead, you’re subject to a $25 fine for your first offense ($50 for your second, and $100 for three or more).

WKZO reports Grand Rapids police have issued tickets already:

The first tickets were issued Wednesday when the voter-approved ordinance took effect. The first one went to a 28-year-old man from the northwest side of Grand Rapids, who was cited around 3 a.m. Wednesday.

The marijuana law in Grand Rapids mirrors the one in Ann Arbor.

The only difference is “selling marijuana” is not listed as a potential civil infraction in Grand Rapids as it is in Ann Arbor (organizers felt Grand Rapids voters wouldn’t be THAT lax).

Voters in Grand Rapids approved their charter decriminalizing marijuana last November.

But because of arguments and lawsuits and confusion over how to enforce the new law, it’s only now going into effect (for more on that legal battle, see Lindsey Smith’s coverage).

And so it goes. Society is changing.

It seems in every election cycle, there are laws passed that seek to loosen restrictions on marijuana use.

Grand Rapids did it. And last November, voters in four other cities in Michigan approved local ordinances aimed at lessening the penalties for possession of marijuana.

But there's a complicated legal landscape around these new laws.

Local laws that “decriminalize” marijuana possession can only go so far.

The ordinances do not affect state and federal drug laws.

Through the lens of the federal government, marijuana is in the same category as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, with no accepted medicinal use, and a high potential for abuse.

Similar to the way it was viewed in the 1930s?

Image from the 1936 film 'Reefer Madness.'
Credit americansforcannabis.com
Image from the 1936 film 'Reefer Madness.'

And Michigan law says “a person shall not knowingly or intentionally possess a controlled substance… A person who violates this section as to:”

(d) Marihuana is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both.

In the eyes of the state and the U.S. government, marijuana is still illegal.

So it remains to be seen how local police will enforce new local laws that attempt to make marijuana possession equal to something like a parking ticket.

So how will cities in Michigan use these local laws?

Who decides how they are enforced?

And where do police take their direction from?

These are some of the questions that come up.

We'll take a closer look at these laws and how communities in Michigan go about enforcing them in a series of posts.

First, we start with the most experienced city.

Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor has long had one of the most lenient penalties for marijuana possession in the country.

Starting in 1972, possession of two ounces or less would get you a $5 ticket.

Ann Arbor’s law was a reaction to the jailing of Detroit poet and activist John Sinclair. Sinclair was sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to undercover police in 1967.

In 1971, the John Sinclair Freedom Rally was held at Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor.

John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and 15,000 others called on the state to end his sentence.

Organizers felt that people wouldn't believe them when they announced that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were coming to Ann Arbor, so they asked Lennon and Ono to make this recording:


And here's video of his performance:


A year after that hullabaloo, Ann Arbor leaders voted to decriminalize marijuana. The city solidified its place on the counter-culture map.

Today’s fine is less than a 1972 five-dollar bill.

Today, the $5 ticket has turned into a $25 ticket.

Accounting for inflation, the ticket today is less than what they paid in 1972 ($5 in 1972 is equal to $27.46 in 2012 dollars).

Instead of jail time or a huge fine, the City of Ann Arbor tries to dissuade you from using marijuana with a ticket.

From the City of Ann Arbor Charter:

“No person shall possess, control, use, give away, or sell marijuana or cannabis… ” and that “violations of this section shall be civil infractions.”

And in 1972, police gave you a ticket for two ounces of marijuana or less.

Today, there’s no amount listed. So two ounces, five ounces… in the eyes of the city’s charter, it doesn’t matter.

So to recap, from the Ann Arbor City Charter…

  • Controlling, possessing, or selling marijuana gets you a ticket
  • No amount is listed in the charter
  • State and federal laws conflict with the charter

Ask the lawyer

To try to shed some light on these gray areas, I tossed a few questions to Ann Arbor’s chief attorney, Kristen Larcom.

Me: “Would possession of ANY amount of marijuana be a civil infraction in Ann Arbor, or is there a limit that we’re not seeing?”

Larcom: “While the Charter contains no limit on amount, a person who possesses ANY amount of marijuana could be prosecuted for crimes under state law and federal law.”

More gray. Local laws conflict with state and federal laws. So I wanted to know how it works in Ann Arbor.

Me: “Where does the direction for their behavior come from? Directly from the city charter? Or as directed by the Chief of Police or city attorney interpreting the charter?

Larcom: “…this question does not have a definitive answer.  Under any situation -- not just those involving drugs – a police officer may be acting under the direction of any one or all of the sources you list, as well as others, such as court orders and his/her own experience as an officer.”

More gray… o.k.

Me: “When there’s evidence of marijuana on a scene, what questions would an Ann Arbor police officer ask themselves?”

Larcom: “This question cannot be answered, because what an officer looks for when he/she encounters suspicious circumstances depends on all of the other facts that are present. ‘Suspicious circumstances’ are not at all limited to the presence of marijuana or other drugs and can include circumstances that turn out to be innocuous but at first made an officer or any person think something was amiss.”

Me: “Would a police officer in Ann Arbor have cause to enter my home if they smell marijuana?”

Larcom: “It could be a cause for suspicion that merits further investigation.  But, it does not necessarily mean that an officer can legally enter your home, that he/she will enter your home even if he/she legally could, or, for that matter, that he/she will do any further investigation even though he/she smelled marijuana.  At the risk of sounding redundant, if an officer smells marijuana, what happens next will depend on all of the facts present.”

And the charter also says this….

No Ann Arbor police officer, or his or her agent, shall complain of the possession, control, use, giving away, or sale of marijuana or cannabis to any other authority except the Ann Arbor city attorney; and the city attorney shall not refer any said complaint to any other authority for prosecution.

Larcom says Ann Arbor police officers are not prohibited from participating in enforcement actions led by state police, or by federal agents, but Ann Arbor police don’t report civil infractions.

Me: “If an Ann Arbor police officer issues a civil infraction ticket for marijuana, is it reported to anyone who is not a city authority?”

Larcom: “To our knowledge, the issuance of a civil infraction ticket for marijuana by an Ann Arbor police officer is not reported to anyone else.  However, the ticket is filed with the court and it then becomes public record.”

How an Ann Arbor police officer sees it

So that’s how the city attorney views the charter and how it relates to state and federal law.

For Ann Arbor police officers, it seems, the charter is one of those things that sends a signal:

Pot isn’t a big deal - you can deal with it if you see it, but you don’t have to actively pursue it.

Ann Arbor police officer Lt. Rene Bush told me that they are not actively seeking people who smoke marijuana.

“We use our discretion,” she said. “We deal with it if we see it.”

If there’s a large amount of marijuana involved, Bush says the officer might start asking more questions. She couldn’t recall the last time there was a large marijuana bust in Ann Arbor.

And, she says, in her experience, she hasn't seen a lot of tickets given out for marijuana possession.

By approving the charter, the people of Ann Arbor sent the signal that this type of enforcement is not a priority for them.

Police in Ann Arbor, like all police officers, use their judgment. Former Ann Arbor detective Rich Kinsey writes that the best officers don’t view things as black and white:

The best police officers operate in the gray shades of human existence. Those officers enforce the law — not the letter of the law — but an interpretation based on decency, fairness, humanity and what in their view keeps the public safe.

Ann Arbor’s marijuana law just shades that gray area a little differently.

U-M is NOT Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor officer Lt. Bush points out that the University of Michigan does not operate under the Ann Arbor charter.

“If you’re smoking marijuana and you’re on University property, watch out!” she says.

University of Michigan police officers enforce state law on property owned or managed by the university.

That could mean a stiff fine, or jail time.

University of Michigan police spokeswoman Diane Brown says that can cause some confusion for people who come to Ann Arbor – especially during the annual “Hash Bash.”

“I witnessed one occasion where a person approached one of our officers and asked where the marijuana tent was,” Brown said.

Brown said U-M police officers have safety in mind first during the on-campus rallies for Hash Bash, but they will make arrests for marijuana possession if necessary.

Brown says 18 marijuana related arrests were made during the last Hash Bash - arrests that likely would not have occurred had the individuals been in a spot overseen by the Ann Arbor police.

How will other cities enforce local laws?

So that’s Ann Arbor’s experience, the people of Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Flint, Ypsilanti, and Detroit have also passed laws aimed at lessening the penalties for marijuana.

We’ll take a look at how these laws work in coming posts. In the meantime, talk to us.

What confuses you about local marijuana laws? We’ll try to find some answers.

Mark Brush was the station's Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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