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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Decrim Q&A with Tim Beck, Co-founder of the Safer Michigan Coalition - by Chelsea Shaker

MMMR: Explain to our readers how it is you came about joining the fight for cannabis reform in Michigan, and how Safer Michigan Coalition began?

TB: I came to the cannabis reform movement in 2002, when I decided to cease being an activist in the Michigan Republican Party. I came to the conclusion my skills were best used on a single issue basis. At that time, there was no one in the Democrat or Republican Parties who took cannabis reform seriously in the State of Michigan. There were great people in the Libertarian and Green Parties who supported cannabis reform on a conceptual basis, but no one was willing to carry the flag in a serious, results oriented way.

    The Safer Michigan Coalition was founded in 2009 by Chuck Ream and I, because of an internal strategic dispute within Michigan NORML. At one time, Michigan NORML was the only effective cannabis reform organization in Michigan. The leadership of Michigan NORML in 2009 did not seem to know what direction to take and after seven months of indecision on the organizations part, Chuck Ream took the initiative to form another group and I readily assisted him. There is no disrespect to the current Michigan NORML leaders. They represent a vital constituency in the Michigan cannabis community.

MMMR: What makes decriminalization for individual cities in Michigan so important?

TB:  Decriminalization is important because it is an effective, and viable strategy. The ultimate goal of Safer Michigan Coalition is legalization and regulation of cannabis similar to what is going on in Colorado. Politically speaking, however, we cannot get to that point in the next 12 months. Decriminalization is not a radical idea. It now exists in some form in 18 states. Cannabis users are much safer in those places, albeit it is still not a perfect situation. In Michigan, Ann Arbor is the best example of a decrim environment. Hopefully that model can be extended to the entire state in the very near future.

MMMR: Refresh our readers again as to which cities are included in ballot initiatives for 2014

TB: Saginaw, Mt. Pleasant, East Lansing, Oak Park, Hazel Park, Lapeer, Utica, Port Huron, Clare, Onaway Harrison and Benzie County are officially in play and are very well organized, financed and led on a local level. The Safer Michigan Coalition was in a position to supply critical legal and political consulting to persons in those communities who were ready to take the ball and make their move. The cities of Berkley, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge, Portage and Grosse Pointe Park could also end up on the ballot this year, but so far we are not in a position to formally declare this.

MMMR: Why and how were these cities chosen for candidates of a successful ballot initiative?

TB:  The key reason these cities are active is because of the local leaders. They are willing and able to take charge. These leaders are temperamentally suited to such a task. They have no illusions about the difficulties they will face. They are open minded and constantly receptive to new information. They have a strong will to win. They will be the first to benefit in one way or another down the road, when they free their communities.

MMMR: 2014 is sure to be a historical year for marijuana decriminalization. By what margins are you expecting these initiatives to get enough signatures and then of course votes once on the ballot? 

TB: All- credible poll numbers indicate these cities will win with margins of 55% or more, as has occurred in the past in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Ypsilanti, Lansing, Jackson, Ferndale and Kalamazoo. Public opinion has gotten even more favorable since these measures have passed. Leaders in this state have local signature gathering down to a science and we will get the numbers we need.

MMMR: Please help us explain the ins and outs of Benzie County’s decriminalization efforts. Is every town in the county on board with the initiative? How will enforcement be issued in the cities in the county of Benzie?

TB: Benzie County is a completely unique situation. There is no such thing as a ballot initiative process for any Michigan counties except Wayne and Macomb. If Benzie County residents get to vote on this, it will be because the elected county commissioners decide to place it on the ballot. This would be a very big deal from a historical and political perspective if that were to happen. Local leaders in Benzie County are making a serious effort and it is still a work in progress. There is no precedent for this. We are assuming the County Commissioners know what they are doing and are in touch with the will of the voters. There is no political risk for them to simply put the question to the voters and let the people decide. Whether officials in one town or another agree with the proposition is immaterial. The vote totals in the various Benzie County cities will be there for everyone to see if this goes to a vote county wide.

MMMR: There have been concerns about the initiative being invalid due to limited police authority for the overall county and other concerns about Benzie County not allowed per state law to make those types of considerations (ie: civil infractions, ordinances, and so on) In regards to Richard Figura, PC’s statement to the Chairman and Members of Benzie Co. Board of Commissioners. 

How do you feel the initiative will pan out for decrim with opposition such as this being presented to the councilmembers of Benzie?

TB: Things will just have to work themselves out with the various legal theories floating around. Not every so called election expert agrees with Mr. Figura’s opinion. It seems as of this writing, there is a desire on the part of a majority of the Commissioners to put something on the ballot. They fundamentally believe the war on cannabis is useless in Benzie County and they want to do something about it if they can.

MMMR: Most of us here in Michigan understand that in order to achieve full-on legal, adult use of Marijuana, we must first establish decrim efforts individually, city by city. How hopeful are you that the Michigan government will give the green-light? Do you expect similar scenarios seen in Colorado to unfold here as well? 

TB: It is virtually impossible to predict what the Legislature is ever going to do, especially with an issue like this. Their natural compulsion is to do nothing and hope the problem goes away. Most of them do not live in the same world as you or I. We can only do what is in our direct power to do. The Safer Michigan Coalition has developed fool proof legal models that have been tested all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The ability is there for us to enable local leaders to liberate their own towns from the yoke of state law. This has happened  in Jackson and Grand Rapids; where the elected officials and city police are refusing to enforce state cannabis laws as their voters have directed them to do.  Ann Arbor has been listening to their voters for over 40 years. Lots of people in these cities have escaped persecution as a result. We are cautiously optimistic that Rep. Jeff Irwin’s decrim bill HB 4623 will pass the Legislature by the end of the year, if we are successful at the polls this Fall. 

    As far as full legalization like in Colorado, that will take at least 6 years or more if it is left up to the Legislature. Our best hope for more immediate change is a statewide ballot initiative assuming the money can be raised and the poll numbers indicate a good possibility of success.

MMMR: Explain the difference between lowest law enforcement priority, decriminalization, and legal adult use. Which cities this year differ? Which direction do you expect Michigan’s state-wide approach to sway? 

TB: Lowest law enforcement priority, which we have done in the past in Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti, means possession and use of small amounts of cannabis takes a seat way in the back row in terms of police focus. Other crimes take precedent. Decriminalization means that small time cannabis use is treated like a traffic ticket where one pays a fine and has no criminal record. Legal adult use means just that. Such activity is no longer a crime and there is no punishment of any kind.

     Most of our initiatives this year will be outright legalization. On the west side of the state, which is more conservative, decrim seems more of a sure thing, so that is what we are going with. In those instances, we are replicating the Grand Rapids model, where small time cannabis use is now the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

MMMR: Is the change in Governor and Attorney General imperative to see these efforts through for the whole state?

TB: We are going to win our initiatives no matter who is Governor or Attorney General.  That being said, the defeat of Attorney General Bill Schuette this November would be a huge boost for our efforts. Every member of the community should pull out all the stops to get rid of this man. His defeat  would be terrifying to the prohibitionists who are still doing their best to keep us down. As far as Governor Snyder is concerned, he has been neither friend nor foe. He is not identified with this issue in the public mind the way Mr. Schuette is, so his removal will not have much impact one way or another on the ongoing cannabis debate. Finally, I do not believe the Democratic Party nominee will be much of a proactive friend of ours either.

MMMR: Other states have passed Decrim efforts as well, most recently being a joint effort in Maryland with a state-wide Decriminalization and a Medical Marijuana law. Are you familiar with other states that have similar, individual city initiatives like Michigan’s cities, or did they somehow streamline and go all in for state-wide legal? 

TB: Decrim in the 18 states which have these laws have all came about through acts of the Legislature. The only exception is the State of Massachusetts, where it was done by voter initiative. Many of these laws were enacted in the 1970’s when there was greater tolerance for marijuana. Fortunately these states did not repeal their laws when the Reagan anti-drug era began. The Reagan era put the kibosh on successful cannabis reform efforts for many, many years. Michigan and Massachusetts are unique in using the technique of local ballot initiatives to lead up to statewide change. The Massachusetts city by city strategy was ultimately successful. Hopefully we will be successful in Michigan just like they were in the Bay State.

MMMR: Last but not least, why do you feel Michigan as a whole is ready for cannabis decriminalization reform? What do you believe has been the #1 issue that has held us back from going full legal? 

What steps must we as constituents do to ensure positive public policy change?

TB: Michigan is ready for decrim because the poll numbers are incontrovertible. Poll after poll has indicated 65% of Michigan voters believe non-medical cannabis should be illegal, but small time use should be the equivalent of a traffic ticket and does not deserve jail time. As far as full blown legalization is concerned, the polls vary, but support for full blown legalization like in Colorado is only around 50% in Michigan. Until those numbers increase to at least the high 50’s, it is not realistic to expect Michigan to become another Colorado at any point in time. All we can do is continue to do what we are doing in the Legislature and at the ballot box. Most persons over 70 years old do not understand the difference between cannabis and heroin. Younger people do, in overwhelming numbers. As the demographics inevitably shift in the years ahead, cannabis legalization will be the inevitable result. 

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