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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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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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