Last year voters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, passed an amendment to the city’s charter classifying simple marijuana use or possession as a civil infraction, not a crime. At the same time similar voter-driven initiatives happened elsewhere in the country. Two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized recreational use of the substance. But, as seems to be the trend with voter initiatives, once the law is passed, the litigation begins.
In Grand Rapids, Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth filed a lawsuit to prevent the charter amendment from becoming law. He argued that federal and Michigan laws that make marijuana possession or use a crime overshadow and prohibit cities from legalizing the drug. Forsyth claimed that the charter amendment conflicted with Michigan laws and would interfere with his responsibility as a prosecutor to uphold those laws.
Here is the exact language of the proposal offered to voters:
PROPOSAL 2 PROPOSED AMENDMENT TO TITLE XVIII (MISCELLANEOUS PROVISIONS) OF THE CHARTER OF THE CITY OF GRAND RAPIDS, CONCERNING THE DECRIMINALIZATION OF MARIJUANA
A proposal to decriminalize possession, control, use, or gift of marijuana, through a Charter amendment prohibiting police from reporting same to law enforcement authorities other than the City Attorney; prohibiting the City Attorney from referring same to other law enforcement authorities for prosecution; prohibiting City prosecution except as civil infractions enforced by appearance tickets with a maximum fine of $100.00 and no incarceration; waiving fines if a physician, practitioner or other qualified health professional recommends the defendant use marijuana; and providing an affirmative defense to prosecution for defendants intending to use marijuana to relieve pain, disability, or discomfort.
Shall this amendment be adopted?
On May 6, 2013, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan dismissed the lawsuit and ruled the amendment valid. He noted that it is still a crime to possess or use marijuana in Grand Rapids. All the charter amendment did was create an additional civil infraction and direct city law enforcement to use this law, rather than the state controlled substance statutes.
Other law enforcement, like state police or federal investigators are still allowed to investigate and prosecute the state and federal drug laws. For city officials like City Attorney Catherine Mish, though, the fines connected to the civil infraction are so small ($25 – $100) they do not cover the cost of prosecution. The city may decide to save its resources and not enforce the civil infraction at all.
But the litigation is not necessarily over. Prosecutor Forsyth has the ability to appeal the court’s decision, in which case the effect charter amendment could be delayed for several more months, or even years. Change, it seems, will not come swiftly to Grand Rapids.