Guest commentary: Time to lay down arms – and save money – in marijuana fight

By Rep. Jeff Irwin

The time has come for a more sensible approach to marijuana in Michigan. From a practical perspective, we know that marijuana prohibition is a failure. Michigan state and local governments spend more than $325 million a year and still fail to keep marijuana out of the hands of interested buyers. We spend these hundreds of millions annually despite more pressing concerns such as improving education, fixing roads and investing in effective public safety programs. Perhaps more importantly, as happened with alcohol prohibition, our current marijuana laws enrich and empower violent criminals and gangs. In short, our current approach is not only wasteful and ineffective; it creates more serious crime and violence.

Fortunately, we have communities in Michigan and other states around the nation that are leading the way in improving the government’s response to marijuana users. Seventeen other states have already either decriminalized or legalized marijuana use.  These states, including our neighbor Ohio, are already saving taxpayers’ money, and their less punitive stance toward marijuana users has resulted in no change in the rate of marijuana use. We also see decriminalization ordinances in many communities here in Michigan. Including cities that have voted to make marijuana enforcement the “lowest priority” for law enforcement, the growing list of cities in Michigan that are endorsing a more sensible approach to marijuana users includes: Grand Rapids, Flint, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Ypsilanti and Traverse City.

The experience of these states and communities demonstrates that people who choose to use marijuana do so regardless of the severity of the punishment. It bears repeating, when states and communities choose a less punitive response to marijuana users, there is no impact on the rates of usage. The main change is that we stop wasting money on an ineffective system.

Further, by decriminalizing marijuana use, Michigan will stop ruining the lives of the countless people of all ages who have been run through the criminal justice system at great expense to their families and their futures, with no demonstrable benefit to society. While the drug war has been a failure in keeping drugs off the market, it has been incredibly effective at devastating the lives of those users ensnared by this war against our own people.

That's why I've introduced House Bill 4623, a proposal to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. My bill would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction, with no jail time and no criminal record for the offender. The proposal doesn’t change the penalties for driving intoxicated or for selling marijuana; those actions would still carry criminal misdemeanor or felony charges, potentially punishable by time in jail or prison.

Unsurprisingly, my proposal has received a warm reception from the public and from fellow policy-makers. My bill was introduced with bipartisan support, and my conservative colleagues who favor smaller government are interested in the potential savings to state and local governments. Recent research from Pew Research Center suggests that 72 percent of Americans believe that we “spend more than it is worth” to enforce marijuana prohibition. Naturally, there are critics; but the overwhelming majority of people agree that our current approach is not working. That consensus provides an opportunity for the necessary dialogue on this matter. My hope is that HB 4623 is a starting point for that discussion and that, with the best practices and the best research in front of us, Michigan’s Legislature will move forward with a more reasonable and effective approach to marijuana policy.

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Tue, 05/28/2013 - 9:01am
While the small time or occasional user should get a pass as you suggest, I would hate for us to give up searching for the large plots that organized gangs are growing in our national forests, remote areas, or vacant homes with grow lights.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 11:38am
Huh? But the only reason organized gangs are doing that is because it is illegal. So I'm like whaaa?? You can't make vast profits of legal agricultural products. Criminal gangs do not go into the asparagus growing business. From what I've read, you can get a $1,000 a single marijuana plant. The gangs thank you for prohibition every day they get in their tricked out BMW's to go to the strip clubs rather than a day job like the rest of us. FYI: I'm not a pot user.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 10:47am
I agree with Jeff in so many aspects & his law makes great $$$$ sense. I am A PROUD Rush Conservative, joining Jeff Irwin in A BIG CO$T $AVING$ Bill that really is long over due.
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 1:05pm
While I agree with Representative Irwin's proposal and comments, it doesn't go far enough. As a country and our various states, why not decriminalize it and tax it like liquor and cigarettes. Michigan could raise a lot more than $325 million/year.
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:50pm
Right on Bro!
Malcolm Kyle
Tue, 05/28/2013 - 2:53pm
Prohibitionism is intensely, rabidly, frantically, frenetically, hysterically anti-truth, anti-freedom, anti-public-health, ant-public-safety, and anti-economy. An important feature of prohibitionism (which it closely shares with fascism) is totalitarianism. That means: A police state apparatus; widespread surveillance, arbitrary imprisonment or even murder of political opponents, mass-incarceration, torture, etc. Like despicable, playground bullies, prohibitionists are vicious one moment, then full of self-pity the next. They whine and whinge like lying, spoilt brats, claiming they just want to "save the little children", but the moment they feel it safe to do so, they use brute force and savage brutality against those they claim to be defending. Prohibitionists actually believe that they can transcend human nature and produce a better world. They allow only one doctrine, an impossible-to-obtain drug-free world. All forms of dissent, be they common-sense, scientific, constitutional, or democratic, are simply ignored, and their proponents vehemently persecuted. During alcohol prohibition (1919-1933), all profits went to enrich thugs and criminals. While battling over turf, young men died on inner-city streets. Corruption in Law Enforcement and the Judiciary went clean off the scale. A fortune was wasted on enforcement that could have been far more wisely allocated. On top of the budget-busting prosecution and incarceration costs, billions in taxes were lost. Finally, in 1929, the economy collapsed. Does that sound familiar?
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 9:34am
Should the same arguments then be used to decriminalize other drugs like cocaine and heroin? Let's tax cocaine and heroin too. Wouldn't this also cut down the activities of organized gangs?
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 10:29am
Although Bridge Magazine's mission is "to inform Michigan citizens about their state, amplify their views" as stated below, I find it ironic that they deleted my, neither hateful or intolerant, question asking "why not also legalize cocaine and heroin using the same logic as Irwin?" I am sure this will be deleted too. "Bridge’s mission is to inform Michigan citizens about their state, amplify their views and explore the challenges of our civic life.Our goal at Bridge is simple: To better inform Michigan’s private citizens so as to encourage a vibrant state in both the private and public sectors."
Derek Melot
Wed, 05/29/2013 - 11:25am
Matt, Neither of your comments were "deleted." As a first-time commenter, your comments were moved to a review file for approval. As a small operation, we don't monitor comments from moment to moment, which sometimes causes a delay in review and either approval or rejection. Now that you have had an approved comment on our site, your future comments should move directly to publication. Derek Melot, senior editor
Mike Parent
Thu, 05/30/2013 - 1:08pm
Thank you for making this effort. It is a STEP in the right direction. True legalization with sane regulation would even be better. After all, marijuana is safer than what the govt. allows, so why have any punishment?
mike klobuchar
Sun, 06/02/2013 - 10:21am
The legislatures will ignore this and any other such proposals as long as the various entrenched industries that benefit from HEMP/CANNABIS prohibition continue to hold sway in our For Sale Legislatures.