Earlier this summer, I was invited to a fundraiser at The Pyramid Scheme to say a few words and then introduce a local musical act. It was all pretty standard fare, to be honest, so with my notes ready, I headed to the stage.
As I stood next to the band members tweaking their instruments, I surveyed the crowd. According to the fire marshal’s sign on the door, the room had a capacity of 420 and it appeared pretty full. As I attempted to focus on the room, I saw the faces beyond the stage lights.
I realized something quickly -- something I had never witnessed before. Quickly casting off my prepared speech, I looked up and then outward before delivering, “What’s up, Grand Rapids?!” in my best call-to-attention voice.
“This is a unique period in your history because you are attempting to solve a problem with a solution that will not only make a difference in our community members’ lives,” I said, pausing to take a deep breath, “but you are saving the city money while creating the city in which you want to live in. It is a beautiful thing. This city belongs to you, too.”
The cause celeb was unlike any I had seen before as members of Decriminalize Grand Rapids, a citizen-driven initiative, rocked their first big event to raise the funds for a petition drive to get this on the ballet.
The purpose of the ballot initiative for the November 6 Local Prop 2 is to decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana in the city of Grand Rapids. Many other states and cities have preceded us, including Ann Arbor in 1974.
A War on Drugs or People?
Since 1965, the unofficial first year of the war on drugs, at least 20 million people have been arrested in connection with marijuana possession.
But the war on the information surrounding marijuana began much earlier and, ironically, just a few years after prohibition would be lifted – a period of time when gangsters rose to power through the sale of alcohol and millions of people’s lives were impacted as a result of this illegal trade.
So on Oct. 1, 1937, the U.S. government, buying into the popular hysteria of the day, outlawed the possession and cultivation of cannabis.
Over the years, as citizens came to the realization that our laws and punishments do not reflect the reality of what has been peddled as fact all these years, similar ballot initiatives like the one before the Grand Rapids voters have succeeded as marijuana has been decriminalized returning a rational response to a problem in our community.
Many states have even adopted measures that protect those who use this plant for medical reasons, including the citizens of Michigan in 2008.
This particular ballot initiative in Grand Rapids, known as Local Prop 2, is being driven by a generation that has been dealing with the pain of a law that has proved not to be effective in curbing use, while actually turning people into criminals as a result of the reach and scope of current laws.
In a city where we pride ourselves on innovation and with forward and realistic elected officials like 3rd Ward Commissioner Jim White (see his historically rich YouTube video
on the matter), the DCGR group is taking the lead on this topic as they themselves or people close to them are feeling the real impact (and some real pain) of the result of current laws. They have organized, walked, staffed and even conducted many community events to educate the population on this matter and their initiative. It is nothing short of inspiring to see such civic engagement and in action with a new generation.
In 1998, Congressional Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) shamelessly slipped the Aid Elimination Penalty as a committee amendment into the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization bill signed by President Clinton. Without a shred of debate or a recorded vote, this change forever impacted students’ ability to get financial aid in the form of grants and loans if they had a marijuana charge on their record. It shocked a nation of elected officials who unknowingly voted for such a terrible act.
Under the current rules, even as they have been modified, yet not removed since 1998, a student can commit some pretty crazy behavior with far more impactful results on their life and others, but still get student aid.
Whether it was the national groups like the Students for Sensible Drug Policy who formed immediately after 1998 new financial aid rules were enacted or our local Decriminalize Grand Rapids (DCGR) team, all these groups share a common vision. They seek to use their intellect to find a smarter solution, using the tools and research at their disposal.
The Real Costs
The DCGR website
has a complete list of scholarly reports, medical studies as well as income impact studies on their site for review. This includes the startling fact that in 2010, it cost the City of Grand Rapids $2,517.346.60 for law enforcement over simple marijuana possession. In the mind of this editor, I feel these funds would be better redirected elsewhere, like our neighborhood association centers, especially considering how little they presently receive and the positive, relationship-building results they produce through the time-honored and tested power of community-organizing.
Early on, the DCGR group caught my attention as they adopted the phrase, “It’s a Smarter Way” as a rally cry to our community to help resolve this crisis.
Gone was the stereotypical “if it feels good, do it” rally phrases of the Baby Boomer generation,, some of whom in adult life would go on to enact the draconian laws before us that are simply out of touch with the facts before them.
This generation has looked at the Jim Crow-like laws that are happening in slow motion around them in their country every day and decided that locally, enough is enough and thus gave birth to this ballot initiative.
And just to be clear, it is not as if the initiative is removing any laws on Grand Rapids’ books. Far from it.
“Early on in this process as we researched this topic, we discovered there was no law locally,” says [what war?] veteran Michael Tuffelmire, one of DCGR's organizers. “So after talking with the legal counsel, we decided why not write a policy like other Michigan cities have done in Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Traverse City and, potentially soon, Detroit?”
Their smart approach to this initiative is twofold: They want to save the city money so that their future is bright, but they also wanted to craft a balance on the other side that addresses the problem of a failed marijuana law that ultimately deals with people harshly.
The current law not only punishes our community with a crippling set of enforcements that threaten our ability to focus on the real crime in our society by redirecting our resources away from violent crimes, but these strict and out of sync laws have ruined the lives of so many over the years with their excessive penalties that the results of such judgments trickle down in our society. The punishment does not meet the level of the crime, according to the DCGR team working on this initiative.
Legal counsel for the local Prop 2 has been provided at many levels including the Grand Rapids City Attorney Catherine Mish, who worked with the city of Ann Arbor on the drafting of the language. DCGR also retained the services of Jack Hoffman of Kuiper Orlebeke as their chief counsel in this matter.
Hoffman, well respected in the legal community of Grand Rapids, has lived in the city most of his life and has been vocal in his opposition to Michigan’s Attorney General Bill Schuette who publically warned that this ballot measure is in conflict with the State, even though many other cities in our state have adopted their own ways of dealing with this matter at the local level.
“I do not agree with the Attorney General’s office as I believe local governments have the ability to set their own policy,” says Hoffman. “And the right to enforce such policy for the benefit of the people they serve.”
Again, this point reminds me of the beauty of local government and the power within where we get to make the city in which we want to live.
Endorsing Is A Growth Sign
Over the last few months, the endorsements
kept coming from our area’s community members, business leaders and even our elected officials.
Some, like Mayor George Heartwell and 2nd ward commissioner Ruth Kelly, have been convinced this new reclassification of simple marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction is the way to go.
Kelly, a former schoolteacher in the Grand Rapids Public School system before retiring and being elected to city hall, has seen firsthand the negative impact of the current law.
A good commissioner often starts at the street level as they approach topics within City Hall but Kelly says one of her methods of collecting community data starts with her year’s of experience as an educator in Grand Rapids.
“What I have witnessed as a teacher for years is that our current policy has caused hardship within family’s lives,” says Kelly, “It just did not seem to be the right way to deal with this matter.”
This is an argument that many in DCGR use often, over and over: The punishment does not match the crime.
While I listened to members of DCGR share personal stories of members of our city who have fallen into the system, I must say I am bit shocked that we as citizens have allowed a bad policy to stick around so long, or, in Grand Rapids’ case, to operate without our own unique public policy on this matter.
“As elected official[s], we are asked constantly to review policy,” says Kelly. “And sometimes, we will find that a policy does not work. When we do, we do what we have been elected to do: we update or amend it to make it work.”
This is a key point. Grand Rapids has thrived over the last decades, adopting policies that just make sense like greener practices and enacting LGBT protections in as early as 1994 (the same year San Francisco did the same for their citizens).
Laws should be written to protect the citizens and enable their best attributes to shine under this light. Currently in Grand Rapids, if you are busted for simple marijuana possession, the state law is in effect. With the passage of this proposition, a civil infraction ticket will be written instead.
If passed it will also no longer take an officer nearly a third of his shift time to process a person simply for the possession of a joint. Under the proposed changes, he can get back to the job of protecting our citizens from violent crimes after writing the ticket. It just makes sense when you look at the savings and benefits to the city and our citizens.
The Real Costs (Human Scale)
This will not decriminalize the sale of marijuana. Ultimately, any charges beyond the scope of what Prop 2 seeks to do for our citizens will be handled by the city attorney, who will have at her discretion the ability to move a charge to a higher court. But with the passage of Prop 2, the citizens of Grand Rapids will not be facing jail time as they do presently.
If the current laws stand locally, once you have been convicted, you will have to disclose yourself as a criminal on any future job applications when asked. War veterans will lose their Federal benefits -- even at a time when marijuana studies are proving to be highly effective in treating PTSD. One of the hardest hit groups is still our college students, who lose financial aid and often the hope of making a future.
Seven years ago, Josh Breuer was riding in the backseat of a full car when the driver neglected to use their turn signal and a local officer of the GRPD pulled them over. As they collected the licenses of each and every one of them, Breuer would discover, unknown to him nor his legal counsel, that he had a bench warrant for his arrest for an outstanding matter surrounding a party the police broke up and in doing so, charged Breuer with an odd breaking and entering charge.
As the police officer searched his person and belongings, they discovered tucked inside his backpack some marijuanna --less than an eighth of an ounce, or enough for about 1.5 joints.
So as a condition of his bench warrant, Breuer was off to jail, now with an added possession charge for marijuana. Over the next five months, he would enter a probationary period as dictated by the court who set up the terms of his "rehab" for his drug crime. Breuer shared that he would go on to clean up his act, take up biking as a healthy activity since he not only stopped smoking marijuana, but he gave up smoking cigarettes as well. He was putting his life in the court's eyes back on track. But not all would end rosy as he shared a big problem he was facing each time he met with his court assigned probation officer.
“My probation officer and I did not get along for some reason, so as I reached the end of my time with her, I was asked to take a [drug] test and she remarked that my pee was too watery,” says Breuer. “I insisted that I was drinking lots of water as a result of riding my bike, I would be willing to have blood drawn or submit to hair sample checks, but she would not have any of it. She did not believe me. And even though my results were negative each time, she invalidated my parole just shy of me being released from her guardianship and tossed me back in jail for days where as a vegetarian, my dietary needs were ignored. I would receive visits from my mother who would have to talk to me through the thick glass.”
When he was finally released days later, his mom would pick him up at the jail and like all good moms, had a meal waiting for him, knowing full well he was not eating while locked. But Breuer's journey did not stop there with this matter.
Breuer, after being released, would go on to finish his semester of college. But when he attempted to renew his financial aid, he would discover what so many others have discovered: he was denied any aid and forced, as a result, to terminate his education.
Is this the culture we want to create here in Grand Rapids for our youth, where excessive penalties are imposed year after year without impacting the situation at hand? DCGR promises that the proposal ends reporting such charges since they do not become a part of your permanent record and then something that follows you forward in your life. The war on drugs is a war on the people of the U.S. when we deliver such crippling punishments out of sync with the times in which we live.
The City Where We Want To Live
This is not the city many of us have imagined. I began to wonder what members of the GRPD thought. I have asked questions over the years on this matter and as early as last weekend at a softball tournament in Creston, officers (all wanted to be off the record) nearly all agreed that the current punishment does not match the crime. It is clear the path we are on is not working for any of us.
This is truly a unique time in our history because, as I mentioned before, we have never had a generation take up the reins of leadership on a topic in a long time. And what makes this unique is that they have presented a very compelling case for voting yes on Prop 2.
We have given them permission to make such bold moves. It is in the headlines often that we ask them to stay in our city after college, to create businesses and maybe even start a family here. We have invited them here to be one of us and all they ask in return is that we listen to them as well. It is a period of greatness in our city and these members of DCGR have ignited a civic pride I have not felt in a long time as they answered each and every question I have poised to them over the last year.
But I am not voting this November because I like their civic duty. I am voting yes because it is time that we apply the open-mindedness to the ideas that come our way on a regular basis. If successful, we will join a long list of cities enjoying a resurgence in growth because of these smart solutions to old problems that have plagued generations and held us back from advancing as a community.
We are seeing the city through their eyes, their vision. This lessening of the penalty will not turn us into San Francisco or Portland or Chicago (who all have decriminalized marijuana), but we will join this elite list of cities that continue to dominate and compete with and for our talent, youth and industry.
If passed, local Prop 2 will determine where people choose to live in the years ahead. This you can bank on 100 percent. It will impact our region for the better because it shows we did the hard thing in looking back, seeing our faults and then correcting them as we move into the future.
This era shows we are seeking to encourage diversity, to be more welcoming, but also be more fiscally responsible. The people at DCGR have made a compelling case why we should all vote yes this November on the local prop 2 (on the back of the ballot).
All those who are affirming their yes are not asking for anything beyond what is considered reasonable and smarter for our future and our time. Local Prop 2 is a truly a smarter way.
On Oct. 11, downtown Grand Rapids' Pyramid Scheme will host a fundraiser to benefit the DCGR campaign from 4 - 7 p.m. 10 percent of all drink sales with be donated to the DCGR. Later in the evening, Friends with Benefits will present their yearly '90s tribute show featuring bands covering favorite tracks from the 1990s. The $5 cover will also go to DCGR.
The Future Needs All of Us
to continue to this week’s G-Sync events.