A group of Marquette residents are leading a charge to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in the city.
In 2008, Mike Marthaler was arrested in his hometown of Alpena for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
“It has affected my ability to get jobs,” he said. “It’s a hurdle that I have to jump over every time. I already have cerebral palsy.”
He’s now a licensed medical marijuana patient.
“I made my mistakes, and I’m going to have to pay for them,” Marthaler said. “I’m always going to have to answer for this, and I’m OK with that. I would like to help out others. You shouldn’t have to answer for this if the vast majority of people doesn’t think it’s a big deal.”
Marquette lawyer Brian Bloch says that as a defense attorney, the results of marijuana possession cases often bother him.
“I currently have one client who should be graduating from Northern (Michigan University) and taking a job as a teacher, and she may find four years of work and a good job is no longer available to her because she was caught with two and a half grams of pot,” he said.
Marthaler and Bloch are board members of Legalize MQT, a community nonprofit group.
Legalize MQT would like the city of Marquette to make possession of two and a half ounces of marijuana or less a civil infraction instead of a crime, with a $100 fine similar to a parking ticket.
They chose two and a half ounces because that’s the amount Michigan’s medical marijuana law allows licensed patients to possess.
“(If) you took care of it the next day, you didn’t have to tie up the court system with judges and lawyers and all of the other costly things to the county,” Marthaler said. “The police get their money and everybody’s on their way.”
And there’s precedent for such a step in Michigan.
In November, residents of Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale voted to remove all criminal and civil penalties for possession of one ounce or less.
Detroit voters did it in 2012, and Ann Arbor did it way back in 1974.
“There have been numerous advances in attitudes towards the reality of where in our society substance abuse, marijuana and other drug policy should be going,” Bloch said.
A statewide poll last September found that only 26% of likely voters wanted to see the current system of state criminal penalties continue.
Nearly half of them wanted marijuana to be legalized, regulated and taxed like alcohol.
Dr. Curtis Marder, the executive director of Legalize MQT, says America’s marijuana laws originated in the 1930s largely because the Federal Bureau of Narcotics — which was part of the Treasury Department in those days — was run by a friend of one of the country’s best–known newspaper barons.
“He had a very direct, personal relationship with William Randolph Hearst,” Dr. Marder said. “William Randolph Hearst had purchased large tracts of forestland to make paper. And hemp fiber — the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper. The Constitution’s written on hemp paper. Various states, particularly the southern border states, that wanted to control the flow of Mexicans across the southern border of the United States, wanted the federal government to create a law. It was the perfect bureaucratic target for an agency, that being the Bureau of Treasury, that had a lot of agents sitting around doing nothing because Prohibition had ended.”
Marder says marijuana use does not define a person’s potential in life, since Barack Obama is the third consecutive U.S. President to have publicly said he’s smoked marijuana at some point.
“The way that drug laws are written in the United States, if you have a misdemeanor arrest for possession, you cannot get a student loan,” he said. “You can’t get certain types of licensure, but if you’re arrested, for example, for murder or rape, you can still get a student loan!”
Marquette Mayor Bob Niemi says that while Legalize MQT has attended City Commission meetings, the group has not made a formal request that the commission take action.
“We’re a local government,” he said. “There’s a state government and a federal government. The primacy of their laws trump our laws generally, and I think it’s an issue that should be addressed on the state level.”
Niemi says he’s not convinced that decriminalization is a good idea.
“If we were to tell our police force that ‘well, there’s some state laws we want you to enforce but this is one state law we don’t want you to enforce’, that we want it just as a civil infraction, I think it would confuse people,” he said. “People outside the city would be coming into the city. It just isn’t good public policy for one unit of government to try to change the law of another.”
A bill in the state legislature, House Bill 4623, would make possession of one ounce or less a statewide civil infraction.
The bill has been stuck in committee for nearly a year and is unlikely to ever make its way out.