Marijuana Ballot Initiatives

Municipal Governments in Michigan Reject Marijuana Decriminalization–and Democracy

Flint and Detroit voters approve marijuana decriminalization, their city governments ignore them.


While voters in Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts celebrate the reform of those states' marijuana laws, residents in two Michigan cities are learning that marijuana ballot initiatives are only as effective as the government wants them to be. In Flint and Detroit, popular ballot measures decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot have been rendered toothless by resistant city governments.

"Dead silence." That's how marijuana reform activist Tim Beck described the response of Detroit's mayor, city council, and police department to the Nov. 6 passage of a ballot initiative decriminalizing marijuana possession. Three weeks after voters expressed their will, "no member of the media seems able get any kind of answer one way or another," Beck adds.

On Nov. 7, the Detroit City Council—which months before had sued to block the decriminalization measure from appearing on the ballot—called voters' attempt to scale back the drug war "illegal" and a "waste of time."

"I've had extensive conversation with corporation counsel in regard to this, and the proposal is illegal," Councilwoman Brenda Jones told CBS Detroit. "It was really a waste of our time, honestly, but, whatever—we were made to do it by a judge," Council President Charles Pugh told CBS. Bold words from a city government that's been plagued in recent years by scandal and fiscal insolvency. 

That same day, the city of Flint released a press release calling the passage of its own decriminalization measure "symbolic in nature."

"Possession of marijuana continues to be illegal under state and federal laws," reads Flint's press release. "The police will continue to enforce state and federal laws relating to possession of marijuana. The ballot initiate [sic] does not provide a defense to those laws and the public should fully appreciate that possession of marijuana remains illegal."

Flint's express refusal to comply with the ballot measure earned it a stern rebuke from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. 

"This is in direct violation of the wishes of voters who opted for a decriminalization approach similar to those successfully implemented in cities across the country," LEAP Executive Director Neill Franklin said in a statement. "The citizens of Flint spoke loud and clear in favor of change. City officials should respect the wishes of the voters who put them into office and can remove them just as easily."

Can Flint and Detroit simply ignore successful ballot initiatives? Yes. Yes, they can.

"Under Michigan law, state law supersedes local ordinances in much the same way federal law trumps state law," Beck, who organized support for Detroit's ballot measure, told Reason. "The one difference is Michigan state law specifically allows local law enforcement (such as the Flint police department) to enforce state law if they so choose and ignore any local ordinance which conflicts with state law. On the other hand, if local police choose to follow a local ordinance they also have that choice. Such a decision is made by authorities such as the mayor/city council who can order the police chief what to do. That said, enforcing state law means that any fine or forfeiture money now goes to the state."

If Flint and Detroit cops have to give marijuana fines back to the state of Michigan, now's a good time for them to focus their efforts elsewhere: Moody's just downgraded Detroit's debt rating yet again, and Flint is roughly $17 million in debt and under the supervision of an emergency manager.

Respecting the will of voters wouldn't put Flint or Detroit in uncharted territory. Ann Arbor, home of the top-ranked University of Michigan, decriminalized marijuana in the early 70s (it has yet to descend into anarchy). Michigan voters approved medical marijuana (or "marihuana") in 2008. The refusal of Flint and Detroit governments to respect voters is especially mystifying considering that a third Michigan city not only passed a decriminalization ballot measure, but is hard at work implementing it. According to Grand Rapids officials, the new marijuana ordinance, which reduces marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a civil infraction, goes into effect Dec. 6.

While officials in Detroit can't be bothered to elaborate on their intransigence, Flint Public Safety Chief Alvern Lock said his department is "still empowered to enforce the laws of the state of Michigan and the United States." But is rule of law really the motivating factor here? According to Michigan Radio, the pre-Nov. 6 fine for marijuana possession under Flint's city ordinance is $500, while the current fine under state law is $2,000. Over the last three years, according to Michigan Live, Flint law enforcement have charged fewer and fewer people under the city ordinance, while increasingly charging people under state law. That doesn't sound like rule of law, that sounds like fleecing. 

Regardless, Lock should know that he's also empowered to respect the will of Flint voters. Considering that they're the ones paying his salary, maybe he should treat them with a little less contempt.