Michigan’s Marijuana Legalization Changes Little for Activist College Town

by Elizabeth Pratt

ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN—The University of Michigan’s home, Ann Arbor, was the first municipality in the country to decriminalize the use of marijuana. The liberal institution is home to the Michigan Daily, a college newspaper that urged the state to legalize marijuana as early as 1967.

The University of Michigan is known for its liberal activism not only around marijuana, but in the 1960s when students earnestly protested the Vietnam War, for instance. The University of Michigan is also the most liberal college in the state of Michigan according to Niche.

When Ann Arbor and Detroit activist John Sinclair was arrested for giving joints containing marijuana to undercover police officers in 1969, the university held a rally in support of freeing him. Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison, and the rally was held two years later in 1971.

A year after the rally, Ann Arbor citizens voted to decriminalize marijuana, meaning possession of marijuana was only a civil offense. It has remained decriminalized since then. The area’s history is why students like University of Michigan senior Danielle Jahnke view the college town as a “hotspot for weed use.”

University of Michigan Law School Professor Mark Osbeck corroborated Jahnke’s belief, calling Ann Arbor “a hotbed for marijuana law,” referring to Ann Arbor’s activism surrounding the decriminalization of marijuana in the 1960s and 70s.

However, the enforcement of marijuana-related laws in Ann Arbor is often lenient. For example, one important contribution of Ann Arbor to the recreational use of marijuana is the annual Hash Bash, where vendors and citizens join to sell and use marijuana throughout the city. It is easy to tell which day is Hash Bash because clouds of smoke hover over every inch of the city.

Despite the $25 fine awarded to public users of marijuana, Hash Bash continues every year. Osbeck noted that as long as the people partake off of campus property and are not flagrant in their use, then the police are unlikely to charge anyone with a civil infraction during this event. He referred to this fondly as “selective prosecution,” showing yet again Ann Arbor’s leniency toward marijuana on all levels.

Soon, Ann Arbor will not be the only part of the state to more openly embrace recreational marijuana.

The Issue

On Nov. 6, 2018, Michigan became the first midwestern state and the tenth in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana, perhaps demonstrating its leftward political shift. That shift is amplified by Democrat Gretchen Whitmer’s victory in the race for governor and the election of Democrats in key policy roles after November 2018. The ballot initiative, called Proposal One, passed with 56 percent of the vote. Washtenaw County, which encompasses Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan, voted the highest percentage of “yeses” on Proposal One in November 2018.

As a result, Marijuana became legal for those over the age of 21 starting on Dec. 6. Those who are eligible to smoke can grow up to 12 plants and have a maximum of 10 ounces of marijuana in their home, with any amount over 2.5 ounces kept in a locked box. The proposal also created a state licensing system for marijuana businesses and a tax on the sale of marijuana. This 10 percent tax will be dedicated to the costs of implementation of Proposal One, clinical trials concerning marijuana, schools, roads, and municipalities with marijuana businesses.

Jahnke claimed this was an important moment for Michigan because marijuana is a drug that helps a lot of different people in diverse ways. “With recreational legalization, [marijuana use] will become more normalized for people to use it for issues that may not be seen as serious enough for a medical card,” she stated. To be prescribed a medical marijuana card in Michigan, one has to qualify for serious ailments, ranging from HIV/AIDS to severe nausea. Jahnke referred to conditions that may not be considered as severe as chronic diseases such as mild nausea, discomfort, and lack of appetite. Although only 16 percent of people applying for medical marijuana cards in Michigan are denied, often for clerical issues, the legalization of recreational marijuana may benefit those in need of help but afraid of the reputation they may gain from having to share their cannabis-related habits with family members.

However, it is important to note that although marijuana is now legal in Michigan, residents can still be fined up to $100 for using it in public, and the sale of recreational marijuana has not yet been legalized. Business owners have the power to prohibit marijuana usage on their premises: people cannot drive under the influence of marijuana, and the proposal does not include anything on pardoning past offenders of marijuana-usage laws. Marijuana also cannot be used on federal property, such as public university grounds.

This will not be a large change for students at the University of Michigan, where marijuana has been decriminalized off-campus in the city of Ann Arbor—only steps away from university property. This means that instead of a large fine or jail time, offenders must pay only a $25 fine for using marijuana in public. However, marijuana usage is prohibited on campus, which is subjected to federal regulations. Proposal One does not change this according to the university’s alcohol and other drugs policy.  

When asked if the legalization of recreational marijuana in Michigan would change the way society looked in Ann Arbor, Jahnke firmly stated it would not, saying “Ann Arbor is super chill for that sort of thing.” Jahnke added that she came to the University of Michigan knowing that Ann Arbor was “a sort of weed hotspot.”

Medical Benefits of Legalization

Just as the University of Michigan played an important role in decriminalizing marijuana in Ann Arbor, it can also take up a leading role in incorporating marijuana into everyday life. The institution is one of the best research universities in the world, and its Ann Arbor location places it close to the heart of the marijuana debate. In the following months and years, it is possible that the university will put its research capacity to use in proving the benefits and deficits of marijuana.

Pharmaceutical scientist and University of Michigan Professor Gus Rosania said he and his colleagues have started and will continue to examine the effects of marijuana use. As an expert in drugs that remain in the body for long periods of time, Rosania has also studied the chemicals in cannabis.

Rosania stated that “research is still pretty difficult at the university because we are still restricted by the Feds, so we have to work [on marijuana research] within very narrow, defined legal boundaries.” Because marijuana  has been deemed a schedule one drug by the federal government, meaning there is no acceptable medical use and it can cause extreme harm, the government does not contribute to marijuana research in universities across the United States.

In one case, the federal government demanded that a Texas Children’s Hospital must increase security measures before they began to research a drug made from cannabis plants. The lack of research prevents people from seeing if the benefits of cannabis outweigh the harms. However, now that recreational marijuana has been legalized, he believes the state will make more funding available to research universities.

Rosania noted that a lot of fears concerning marijuana come from fears about prescription drugs, especially opioids. Some people believe opioid addiction stems from marijuana use. Rosania does not agree.  

“One does not hear opioid addicts saying, ‘I got addicted to opioids because marijuana made me seek opioids.’ Opioid addicts mostly get addicted from prescriptions after a surgery, or from sharing pills and taking them haphazardly. Instead, people taking opioids say marijuana helps them reduce opioid use,” Rosania said.

Thus Rosania believes, as some studies suggest, that cannabis is a better alternative to opioids and other intense pain killers. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “some studies have suggested that medical marijuana legalization might be associated with decreased prescription opioid use and overdose deaths, but researchers don’t have enough evidence yet to confirm this finding.” Although medical marijuana and not recreational marijuana is the topic of concern here, more lenient laws regarding medical and recreational marijuana are potentially a sign that people are becoming more accepting of marijuana usage and will be more open to learning about its negative and positive effects.  

Many people fear that marijuana is a gateway drug to opioid use, but it is unclear if this sentiment is a reality. Overall, a lack of studies on the effects of marijuana, both physical and social, is what has prevented a general consensus. This is where research universities like the University of Michigan can contribute to the understanding of marijuana if they are allowed to do so under law.

“[Cannabis] has a huge [medical] potential, and we should be studying it and incorporating it into medical practice,” Rosania stated. “If a doctor prescribed me an opioid…I would ask if there is a natural herbal medication that I could take instead. If the doctor said no, I would look for a better doctor.”

Rosania’s work at the university concerning marijuana will continue with a new fervor after the legalization of recreational marijuana. He is teaching a course on cannabis in the winter semester and is collaborating with colleagues at the University of California San Diego, another university in a state that has legalized recreational marijuana, on research of the medical benefits of marijuana use.

University of Michigan research professors like Rosania have also been involved in studies about use of marijuana among students. University of Michigan Health System has a Michigan Medical Marijuana Program in which patients can learn the potential benefit and harm of using medical marijuana and receive cannabis-related treatment for predetermined ailments. Also, the University of Michigan Medical School recently received a $2.2 million grant to research marijuana’s potential in the medical arena.

Economic Benefits

Just as the University of Michigan has the capacity to research the health benefits of marijuana usage, they also are home to student organizations that advocate for the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana.

One of these organizations is Green Wolverine, “a national student organization focused on the cannabis industry.” According to their website, Green Wolverine’s mission is “to discover opportunities for success in cannabis or related fields through education, networking, and recruiting.” Their presence on campus is important because business education does not traditionally cover the cannabis industry, because of the stigma attached to marijuana use.

The projected growth and success of the marijuana industry could boost Michigan’s economy. According to Breana Noble and Sarah Rahal of the Detroit News, “[the] industry [is] estimated to grow to $800 million in revenue by 2024.” The tax on sales of marijuana will benefit schools and local government. Yet there could also be unforeseen costs from legalizing recreational marijuana. These include increased absences from the workplace, treatment programs for people addicted to marijuana, and efforts to prevent minors from obtaining marijuana. According to the Detroit News, “new economic projections suggest Michigan revenues could fall short of those in Colorado,” because they have higher taxes on marijuana there than there will be in Michigan.

Even proponents of marijuana legalization do not believe that tax revenue from marijuana sales will be enough to solve all money-related problems in Michigan, but the tax is a start to raise money while changing views on marijuana to correlate with popular belief that marijuana use is acceptable–62 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Legal Benefits

It is clear that the legalization of recreational marijuana has many legal benefits for those who enjoy consuming cannabis, the primary benefit being that they no longer need to fear persecution for the use of marijuana in their own home.

Another legal benefit is the potential expungement of records for those who were convicted of marijuana crimes, which are no longer criminal offenses under the new law. It is unclear if the bill that would require judges to consider doing this will be taken up in the Republican-controlled congress. Governor Whitmer could also pardon criminal offenders, something she has said she is potentially in favor of doing.

Law professors like Mark Osbeck also hold important positions because they are educating the new legal vanguard on the likes of marijuana law and its history. This is yet another way in which universities like the University of Michigan are at the forefront of shaping the public image and legislation of marijuana.

Where do we go from here?

Recreational use of marijuana is still a federal crime in the United States. This has not stopped Ann Arbor from pushing for more lenient legalization concerning cannabis usage, nor does not seem like much has changed in the town since Michigan legalized recreational marijuana.

Ann Arbor’s roots are in activism, as can be seen in the rally centered on Sinclair’s arrest. It does not seem like the University of Michigan, so interwoven into the surrounding city, will stop advocating for acceptance of the use of marijuana.

Yet there are still boundaries to the benefits of legalization; people cannot legally sell marijuana in Michigan at this time. Additionally, the legislature could still amend the proposal, but change is bound to come regardless.

Marijuana will remain a controversial subject, even as it is increasingly legalized by state governments. How can law enforcement test to see if someone is driving under the influence of marijuana? How will the sale of marijuana to minors be monitored and curbed? These are only a few of the problems Michigan faces as it adapts itself to the new acceptance of marijuana usage.

Elizabeth Pratt is a senior at the University of Michigan studying history and English.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The cover photo was taken by Dave Lawrence and is under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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