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It's high time to decriminalize

A local group has launched an effort to try and take the issue of punishment for marijuana related crime to the voters.
Underwriting support from:



/DecriminalizeGR/Michael Tuffelmire

Last week a group of citizens in Grand Rapids launched a petition effort to decriminalize the crime of marijuana possession. Our local law enforcement is currently held to state law when it comes to pot related offenses, and according to the organizers, marijuana crimes are inconsistently enforced. The goal of the effort is to introduce a civil infraction system to marijuana related crimes that would replace the harsh criminal penalties levied today. An offender would pay a $25 ticket the first time around. The new mandate, say organizers, wouldn't prevent the GRPD from still going after drug dealers or those involved in much more heinous drug related crimes. In fact, they believe, it would free them up to focus on the true crime that takes place in the city.

I don't smoke marijuana. I think that's an important point. Not because I am scared my employer will read this, but that it strengthens my position. Good policy doesn't have to only be supported by those who have a direct interest. Decriminalization isn't just supported by six bongo drumming pot heads who visit dispensaries daily, it's bigger than that. This issue needs to be mainstreamed.

The organizers of the effort, led by Michael Tuffelmire, are looking to do just that. They kicked off their signature gathering effort by having former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie be signature number one. It's vital, if this is to work, that other city leaders step up. Not just those in office, but business leaders and civic leaders. The citizens of this city need to step up on this issue as well. It's sound public policy. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell has signed the petition, as well as Jim Talen a Kent County Commissioner. I hope more follow their lead.

Does decriminalization lead to higher substance abuse rates? Jim Balmer is a cofounder of Dawn Farm, a substance abuse treatment provider in Ann Arbor. Balmer helped start that organization in 1973, just one year before Ann Arbor decriminalized marijuana through their ballot initiative (the organizers of the effort in Grand Rapids have modeled their proposed ordinance after our neighbors to the east). 

From his perspective, Balmer says the criminalization of drugs in general does nothing to increase or decrease substance abuse. In fact, he says, it's unfortunate that the largest provider of substance abuse treatment in this country are jails and prisons. A system that does nothing to treat the issue of chemical dependency.

"If jails and prisons had any impact, they'd be kicking out winners everyday," says Balmer. "But it's just not the case. We all too often see substance abusers be released from prison, only to get high on the bus ride home."

Balmer believes that marijuana isn't a gateway drug, not anymore so he says, than alcohol. Thinking back to the early days, he says, they didn't see any increase in the need for marijuana dependency treatment. 

"The biggest uptick we see, ironically, is when the local stores that sell beer get really good at carding for alcohol [purchases]. When kids can't get alcohol they can get marijuana."

Balmer says people need to know that you can't "catch" drug addiction. It's a disease, and those who have it are at risk. Simple as that. Relaxing the laws won't make those in the population any more or less susceptible. The drugs are out there, regardless of how criminally punishing the laws may be. 

Of course there's maybe a more compelling reason to get behind decriminalization. Money! According to the group's own number crunching, they believe the city and county (from housing those busted for possession) could save $2.5 million bucks a year. These numbers are mostly guess work based on the numbers that are publicly available, but if correct, that's a nice chunk of change that could be put back into the community.

Here's a bright idea. Let's take the money saved through this change and put it back to where it can have real impact. There are quite a few local agencies facing deep cuts. I'm sure that our local substance abuse treatment providers could use some extra help to treat those facing addiction. Maybe, like Tuffelmire suggests, we put that money back into stronger, more proactive and friendlier neighboorhood policing programs. 

Whatever receives the benefit from the cost savings, it will surely be better for our community than seeing those in simple possession of marijuana get locked up for a year for possession of a gram of pot. So check out Decriminalize GR, and find out where they'll be tabling for signatures. Just 6,500 are needed by August to allow the voters of this community to have their voices heard in November. 

Make sure you're one of them. 

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Over 40 sex offenders live in my zip code, more than half are pedophiles. Why aren't they in jail? There's no room.
It needs to be decriminalized federally. It would solve a lot of financial problems. The big push back will come from conservative christians and the prison industry...It will be worth the fight.