Detroit residents approved a medical marijuana initiative Tuesday by a vote of 59% to 41%, making the Motor City the first large Midwestern city to do so. Similar votes are scheduled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Columbia, Missouri, in November. With a Detroit victory in hand, medical marijuana advocates in those cities and elsewhere have a running start in this election season.
The measure in Detroit changes the city code to create an exception on the ban against marijuana and paraphernalia for people who use it medicinally with a doctor's recommendation. The measure will not stop county sheriffs, state police, or federal law enforcement agents from arresting Detroit medical marijuana patients if they choose to, but the Detroit Police Department has announced it will no longer arrest them.
Detroit Councilwoman Alberta Tinsley-Talabi led the charge against the measure. While she did not return a call from DRCNet this week, she told the Detroit Free Press last month passage of the measure would have "horrible" results. "I feel there would be horrible unintended consequences if it went through under the guise of medical marijuana," she was quoted as saying. "I think it would be hell for the city."
Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick also opposed the measure, although belatedly. Kilpatrick's director of communications, Dave Manning, told DRCNet Thursday the city is still digesting the results. "We're still trying to figure out what it all means, how it would be applied, how are police supposed to handle it," he said. "Our law department is now digging into this and trying to figure it out." Manning did not rule out a possible legal challenge. "It is being reviewed by the law department, and some of the questions we have may end up being answered in court," he said.
But in the meantime, organizers are savoring their victory. "This has been incredible," said Tim Beck, chairman of the Detroit Coalition for Compassionate Care (http://www.mmdetroit.org), the group that organized the measure. "We're ecstatic. My biggest nightmare was being the first medical marijuana initiative to lose," he laughed. "This is going to give some nice momentum to a lot of other folks who have been toiling in the vineyards, it's a nice little lead-in to the November initiatives," he told DRCNet.
The victory was the result of a joint effort by local and national reform organizations, Beck said. "We got a big boost from the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org), which kicked in $30,000 that we really needed. We also raised about $9,000 from smaller donations, and spent about $70,000 altogether," he said. The difference came out of his own pocket, Beck added.
MPP also made itself useful by drawing in big name endorsers, Beck said. "MPP was basically responsible for getting Montel Williams and former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders," he explained. "That was very big."
Others pitched in for the effort as well. Members of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org) were out beating the bushes for signatures early on, said Beck. "George Sherfield, the Michigan NORML head, was very helpful, and we also had some big players who, at least on paper, supported this measure, such as Rep. John Conyers, a former police chief, some councilwomen, and the Detroit ACLU," Beck explained. And Dan Solano, president of Police Officers for Drug Law Reform (http://www.podlr.org). "Dan ran the street campaign and he filled in for me in TV debates and did really well," said Beck.
"For the last year and a half, I went where Tim needed me," said Solano, a retired Detroit police officer. "I've been building community support, getting out and speaking to different groups, or filling in for Tim when necessary," he told DRCNet. One of the groups Solano worked was law enforcement. "I worked on the police here in my city," he said, "and you didn't see any police involvement against this campaign. Cops might be a little different in Detroit," Solano suggested. "Most of us grew up here and live here and actually care about our citizens, so when I was able to give police the truth about medical marijuana they could say 'yeah, that makes sense,' and stay out of it. They did not get involved, and we won."
Solano resorted to some old-style campaigning, too. "One of the things I did that I think was very effective was to hit the streets in my 1980 minivan. I covered it with 'end the war on medical marijuana patients' posters, and the back had a big sign saying to vote for the initiative, and I had a loudspeaker. I drove around the city all day long getting the word out. This was really cost-effective, and it helped get the word out to the community. Some of these neighborhoods had no clue the election was going on."
Organizers understand full well that medical marijuana in Detroit is not the end but the beginning. "We want to change the law statewide," said Beck. "Between this and the vote in Ann Arbor in November, we should be well-placed to go to the legislature and show them there is popular support for this." But the vote does have immediate consequences, he said. "Now, at least, you are safe from being manhandled by the Detroit Police Department. This takes them out of the mix. It is only one layer, of course -- there is still the DEA or the state police -- but most of these cases are handled locally by local police."