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Wednesday, October 23,2013

Questions surround pot question

In weeks leading up to Nov. 5 election, Lansing City Attorney’s Office still investigating what pot-related ballot question means

by Andy Balaskovitz
As of late last week, it’s still unclear what, exactly, a pot-related ballot question being decided by Lansing voters this election would mean for marijuana enforcement if it passes.

On Thursday, Mayor Virg Bernero said his team of attorneys and police chief are still investigating “what exactly it means” if approved on Nov. 5.

Earlier this year, a group of marijuana-reform advocates received enough petition signatures to ask voters for a City Charter amendment “such that nothing in the Code of Ordinances shall apply to the use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, on private property, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years.”

The question will remain on the ballot, despite objections in September from the Attorney General’s Office and Gov. Rick Snyder claiming it would violate state law. Lansing City Attorney Janene McIntyre could not be reached for comment.

Lansing attorney Jeffrey Hank, who helped organize the petition drive, said he is unaware of any issues being looked into by the city.

“The only people I’ve heard make comments about this being confusing are politicians who are afraid and don’t agree with it,” Hank said.

Hank recognizes that the ballot initiative does not bar the Lansing Police Department from prosecuting marijuana cases.

“We can’t control state or federal law here,” he said. “We hope Lansing police will respect the will of voters and not enforce state marijuana law in the city. This isn’t just symbolic.”

To be more specific, the point behind the charter amendment is to prevent future local legislation from imposing penalties for smalltime marijuana possession, use or transfers.

That was the reason organizers didn’t pursue a local ordinance, such as Grand Rapids voters approved that decriminalized marijuana, making it subject to a fine.

However, one lingering question that Hank admits could be up for debate is whether “transfer” means “sale.”

“It’s a tricky question,” he said. “We didn’t create this in mind with commercial sales of marijuana at a store. At the same time, we wanted people to be able to transfer. A transfer would include your ability to receive compensation for transferring something of value.”

City Councilman Brian Jeffries raised concerns that people believing themselves to be in compliance with local law would expose themselves to prosecution by higher law enforcement powers — similar to the Okemos 7, a group of state-certified medical marijuana growers convicted under federal law and sentenced to prison.

Because the city doesn’t have a local ordinance related to marijuana offenses, the Lansing Police Department charges marijuana-related crimes under state law. “This will not impair that process,” Jeffries wrote in the City Pulse candidate questionnaire, adding that he would favor “moving in the direction of Grand Rapids.”

According to figures provided by the LPD, the most frequent marijuana-related arrests involve possessing more than a gram. Between Jan. 1, 2011, and Oct. 14 of this year, the LPD made 178 arrests for marijuana possession over a gram. In that same time, the LPD made 28 arrests for possession of less than a gram. In 32 more arrests, the weight was not reported.

If Hank’s goal is about sending a message to the LPD and the city, he may already have an ally in Bernero, who says he’s moving the city in that direction already.

“We have bigger fish to fry. The Lansing Police Department has much higher priorities,” he said. His understanding is that LPD makes arrests for small weights of marijuana when it’s found in connection with another crime.

“I’m voting for (the charter amendment) because I think we’ve gotta get real,” Bernero said. “My position is education, regulation and taxation. To me, we’re just driving it underground.”

Q&A on pot initiative

Monday, Oct. 28 7 p.m. Capital Area District Library downtown Lansing branch Free and open to the public


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