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Thursday, July 28,2011

Pot for votes?

Lansing City Clerk says Lansing dispensary could have violated state election law

by Andy Balaskovitz
Thursday, July 28 — Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope said a Lansing medical marijuana dispensary may have violated the Michigan Election Law by encouraging newly registered voters how to vote in the upcoming Lansing City Council election.

And, because the dispensary reportedly gave cannabis as a reward for registering to vote coupled with how to vote, Swope said it could be “interpreted” as bribery — a felony.

Swope said today that Your Healthy Choice Clinic, 628 E. Michigan Ave., may have sought to induce voters to vote a certain way, which is a misdemeanor.

“The inducement to vote a certain way is a misdemeanor,” Swope said. Whether this particular incident was a violation “could be interpreted either way. It was clearly too close to the line if not over the line.”

And, depending on how you further interpret the law, offering free cannabis and suggesting how to vote could be seen as bribery, he said.

“It is a felony to attempt by means of bribery or other corrupt means to influence an elector. The interpretation could be made that it was an attempt of bribery,” Swope said.

Sections 931 and 932 of the state Election Law define “prohibited conduct,” including inducement and bribery.

Local television news stations and www.michiganmessenger.com reported Wednesday that Your Healthy Choice Clinic was giving away a free half-gram of cannabis or one cannabis-infused baked good, or medibles, for people who came in and registered to vote for the upcoming Lansing City Council election. Signs at the business also said vote yes for Derrick Quinney, A’Lynne Robinson and Harold Leeman and vote no for Carol Wood and Jody Washington. As of this afternoon, all mention of the registration drive had been removed from Your Healthy Choice’s website. Shekina Pena, owner of Your Healthy Choice, could not be reached for comment.

The story has already grabbed the attention of national media, a state senator and reportedly the state Attorney General’s Office.

State Sen. Rick Jones jumped all over Wednesday’s news that a Lansing medical marijuana dispensary was offering free cannabis to people who registered to vote at the business. Jones said in a statement Wednesday: “Giving away free marijuana to influence voting is outrageous and must be stopped.”

MSNBC posted a story on its website by noon today that said Jones’ “prodding” had prompted Attorney General Bill Schuette’s Office to look into “whether the clinic crossed a legal line.”

The voter registration drive was part of the citywide “Vote for Us, We’ll Vote for You” campaign launched June 13 by the Greater Lansing Medical Marijuana Association, which represents about 20 dispensaries in the area. It’s a coordinated effort to defeat City Council candidates who have advocated tight restrictions on their businesses.

Capital City Caregivers, 2208 E. Michigan Ave., promotes the effort on its website this way: “Participating locations where individuals can register to vote comprise several Lansing-based organizations with over 7,000 member associates.”

“It appears they have taken the inducement down from the website. It’s a step in the right direction,” Swope said.

Swope said he sent a letter with his concerns to Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III, City Attorney Brig Smith and Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanski.

Dunnings said it would be “imprudent” for him to comment on the matter “without knowing the actual facts of what happened.” That would require an investigation by a law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the city, he said.

“It could raise some serious questions,” Dunnings said.

Lansing Police Lt. Noel Garcia said information is still coming in on the matter. “We are gathering all of the information that has come forth to us and we have already consulted with the prosecuting attorney’s office and we will continue to do that,” he said.

Your Healthy Choice’s website read earlier today: “All dispensaries are doing a voter registration drive. If you sign up at Your Healthy Choice, we will assist you in filling out the registration form and will mail it out for you. We believe in power in numbers and everyone taking a stand. I’m planning an event for the preliminary voting that will have shuttles to the polls! We have to amend our Lansing ordinance! May God bless our efforts!”

Swope said he was relieved to see the message taken down. “We want to have a clean election here in the city of Lansing. I’m happy that it’s down — I wish it hadn’t been up in the first place. At this point, I’m waiting on additional advice.”

Brant Johnson, secretary of the business association, would not comment specifically on giving away cannabis as part of the campaign and said he did not know if other dispensaries did so as well. Johnson said about 20 dispensaries and multiple caregivers and patients are affiliated with the association.

“All of our members are helping to register people to vote for this year’s election. We intend to support those who support us,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have a more vigorous campaign soon.”

The campaign is a reaction to the dispensary ordinance City Council passed last month that caps the number of dispensaries at 48 and sharply limits where they may operate. The ordinance restricts dispensaries from being less than 1,000 feet from churches, schools, playgrounds, substances abuse treatment centers and each other. For those in operation before the ordinance was adopted, they’ll have a year to come into compliance. City Pulse reported days after the ordinance was passed that all 11 operating dispensaries on Michigan Avenue will have to move in a year because they won’t comply with the buffering requirements. The Council adopted the ordinance 5-3 at its June 27 meeting and set the cap and licensing fee of $1,000 at its July 11 meeting by another 5-3 vote.

On June 27, Council President A’Lynne Robinson, who represents the 3rd Ward, was a no vote because the ordinance did not allow businesses to be grandfathered for an indefinite time until ownership changed hands. Wood was against the ordinance because it didn’t match her original vision of restricting businesses to only industrial zones.

“Derrick Quinney, A’Lynne Robinson, Harold Leeman and candidates like (At-Large candidate) John Krohn have all expressed support for the medical marijuana business community in Lansing and throughout the state,” Johnson said.

The last day to register to vote for the Aug. 2 primary election was July 1. The deadline to register for the Nov. 8 general is Oct. 7. Aside from some local dispensaries, you can also register to vote at the City Clerk’s Office, the County Clerk’s Office, any Secretary of State Office. All residents can mail an application to the clerk where they live.
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