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July 27--Marijuana questions could pop up on ballots in at least 17 cities across Michigan this summer and fall.
The questions aim to ease or eliminate local penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, an approach that supporters call decriminalization.
Last week, volunteers submitted stacks of signed petitions in Frankfort, Huntington Woods, Mt. Pleasant, Pleasant Ridge and Utica; in prior weeks, they did so in Berkley, Grosse Pointe Park, Harrison, Hazel Park, Lapeer, Montrose, Oak Park, Onaway and Saginaw, said leaders of the nonprofit Safer Michigan Coalition, which coordinated the petition drives around Michigan.
The group planned to submit petitions signatures for Port Huron, East Lansing and Portage on Tuesday, the deadline for filing ballot petitions.
Supporters point to previous decriminalization election wins in nine Michigan cities since 2010 -- including Detroit, Ferndale, Kalamazoo and Lansing. They say that's evidence that most voters want laws against marijuana made more lenient.
When deciding local ballot questions, "voters need to make it clear that they want police to spend their time addressing serious crimes, not punishing adults for using a substance that's less harmful than alcohol," said Karen O'Keefe, a Grosse Pointe Farms native who is state director for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C.
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Those opposed to easing marijuana laws say it will encourage young people to use the drug, causing many to suffer addiction and brain damage, and they claim that it leads some to try more dangerous drugs such as heroin. Opponents of decriminalization also say that watering down existing laws against marijuana sends a message to youth that marijuana isn't dangerous.
Michigan is by no means leading the way on cannabis change. Already, 16 states including Ohio have decriminalized marijuana possession, making it the equivalent of getting a parking ticket. And residents of three states -- Alaska, Florida and Oregon -- could vote in November to join Colorado and Washington state in fully legalizing the use and sale of marijuana.
For most communities, decriminalizing marijuana means repealing widespread local ordinances that deem marijuana possession a criminal misdemeanor, typically punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of as much as $500. In the rare city where no such ordinance is on the books, the ballot questions instruct city officials to make marijuana violations the lowest law-enforcement priority.
Supporters say that, by legalizing and regulating marijuana, society would squash the underground cannabis market, which would also slash access for teens because laws would limit users to adults.
The ballot questions in Hazel Park and Oak Park are to be on the Aug. 5 primary ballots; all others are set for the November election. Foes of marijuana belittle local decriminalization rules, saying they merely encourage police to use state laws for arresting anyone caught with cannabis.
"We have no choice -- we still have to follow the state law," Ferndale Police Chief Tim Collins said last year after Ferndale voters approved its local decriminalization ordinance.
In Macomb County, a backlash against marijuana is growing. Officials hope their warnings will stir voters to block such proposals, including one headed for November ballots in Utica.
"We're attempting to mobilize all of Macomb County, so people know the threat of marijuana to their communities," said Charlene McGunn, a clinical psychologist who has counseled children for more than 30 years.
"People think they're still voting for medical marijuana, but that ship has passed. They're now voting for anyone to smoke pot in their communities," said McGunn, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Coalition for Youth and Families.
Last year, the nonprofit group drew praise from county leaders and U.S. Rep. Sander Levin for its launch of "Mobilizing Michigan -- Protecting Our Kids From Marijuana," a series of PowerPoint presentations and lesson plans now used by agencies and schools in 16 states to teach about the dangers of marijuana, McGunn said.
This month, the Utica City Council voted 6-0 for a resolution opposing the marijuana ballot question. Also against it were Clinton Township and Macomb Township, both of which passed resolutions supporting Utica's stance. The resolutions can't keep Utica's marijuana question off Utica's ballot, Mayor Jackie Noonan said.
"If this passes, it really won't change what we do as a city," Noonan said.
"Macomb County is still very against marijuana progress," said Mike Lumetta, 32, of Warren, who led the petition drive for Utica's ballot proposal. Lumetta owns M2 Certifications in Utica, a clinic where customers typically pay $150 to meet with a doctor and be certified before they apply for state approval to use medical marijuana, he said.
So far, Utica officials have not tried to stifle the petition process, Lumetta said.
"It's up to voters now -- we aren't expecting any funny business," Lumetta said.
In contrast, Oak Park officials tried to block the referendum in their city, forcing the petition group to file a lawsuit and spend nearly $7,000 in legal fees before the city agreed to put the measure on Aug. 5 primary ballots, said Tim Beck, 62, of Detroit, cofounder of the Safer Michigan Coalition.
Vocal opposition from Utica and its neighbors was no surprise, said Beck, a retired health-insurance executive who has spent two decades pushing to legalize marijuana. The group sensed it might face vocal opposition from conservatives in Macomb County, he said.
"But our poll numbers are incontrovertible. These initiatives are going to win all over the state," he said.
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