Friday, 26 July 2013 12:13

Hot Issue: Marijuana proves to be area's hot topic

Written by  Nick Manes
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In early-June, American music and cultural magazine Rolling Stone devoted a whole issue to marijuana. While historically a counter-cultural bastion and a magazine that often writes about weed, a whole issue devoted to the subject seems significant.

The issue hit on a number of central topics and conversations happening on a national level, as marijuana’s legal status continues to liberalize, opening up lots of business opportunities and significant confusion for all the stakeholders.

However, there is a central takeaway. Not just from the magazine, but from conversations not only happening on a national level, but right here in West Michigan: marijuana is hot right now.

In November 2012 - after a long battle to collect signatures - an initiative called DecriminalizeGR was introduced to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana within the city of Grand Rapids. Fiftyeight percent of residents voted for the charter amendment. However, the Kent County prosecutor, William Forsythe, filed a last minute injunction to keep the DecriminalizeGR amendment from being implemented.

On May 1, that legal infighting between cops, judges and attorneys came to an end and marijuana in Grand Rapids was decriminalized.

Since that May 1 implementation there have been 150 charter amendment violations (people busted with less than two ounces of weed) as of June 19, according to Kent County 61st District Court records.

Gary Secor, court administrator for the 61st District Court told REVUE that while the first-time offender ticket is $25, after other fines and court costs, it comes out to about $80. Secor said that to his knowledge, all of those civil infractions were to first-time offenders.

Much of the work behind DecriminalizeGR came from local community activist - and now candidate for Third Ward City Commissioner - Michael Tuffelmire. Tuffelmire views the issue of marijuana criminalization as more of a civil rights issue than in terms of simple legality.

“I grew up in the inner-city. I had a few friends every year who had been busted on petty, non-violent, marijuana crimes," Tuffelmire said, adding he does not want to continue to see this happen in the inner-city.

A map that shows the breakdown of how each of the 77 precincts in Grand Rapids voted at least anecdotally supports Tuffelmire’s insinuation. The areas with the lowest percentage of ‘no’ votes - roughly 40 percent - were in the more outlying areas of the city and are more middle-class. Inversely, the areas with the highest percentage of ‘yes’ votes were in the inner-city and tend to be lower-income.

It is this reason that compelled Grand Rapids-based attorney Jack Hoffman - who is also Tuffelmire’s uncle - to serve as the lawyer for DecriminalizeGR.

“Drug-related cases bring in significant amounts of income to law enforcement agencies through federal grants and forfeitures, thus enhancing the power and influence of law enforcement agencies," Hoffman said. "Nationwide, police and corrections unions have been vocal opponents of drug law reform and have supported their opposition with financial contributions to defeat reform initiatives. I believe it is also generally acknowledged that marijuana arrests are a simple and convenient way to exert police control when evidence of other crime is lacking.”

It is not just the legal status of pot that is changing locally and nationally, however. Its stigma as something to be hidden or ashamed of using is largely disappearing as well. Many musicians and artists have long advocated the use of weed as a stimulator of creativity. Certainly that has not changed, but the stereotype of the faded hippie listening to Pink Floyd and being lazy all day is disappearing. It is quickly becoming accepted that one can smoke weed and still be a productive member of society.

“[Marijuana smoking] hasn't ever been that big of a deal in my adult life,” said Mike Saunders, a Grand Rapids resident who favored the decriminalization law and a regular smoker of nearly 20 years. “I've never worked for a place that drug tested and ... no one has ever made me feel that it was unacceptable that I am a smoker.”

A married homeowner with a steady job, Saunders said he simply views weed as something he does.

“For me it's ... a great way to enjoy music and art. Having a smoke and playing any instrument, putting on record, looking at any type of photography, painting, sculpture is just great,” Saunders said. “These people are not criminals any more than the person having a beer after work.”

Pictured above: Protest after Kent County Prosecutor Forsythe’s injunction. Photo: Ryan Hagerman / The Rapidian

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