East Lansing City Council lowers penalty for underage marijuana possession

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When attorney Jeffrey Hank drafted East Lansing’s successful ballot proposal to decriminalize the possession of marijuana in 2015, residents under the age of 21 were left in a legal limbo.

“There was still a huge debate whether to go 18, 19 or 21 years of age,” said Hank. “We went with 21 because it was the most politically safe.”

The proposal mandated that those over 21 could possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but those under 21 could still face a misdemeanor charge, along with a hefty fine and jail time, if caught in possession of the drug.

On Oct. 11, the East Lansing City Council passed an ordinance to address those under 21 caught with marijuana. The new ordinance classifies marijuana possession as a civil infraction punishable with a $25 fine and community service.

“This is a good thing for the citizens of East Lansing,” said Hank. “It’s the equivalent of a traffic ticket.”

East Lansing Councilmember Shanna Draheim cast the lone vote against the measure. Draheim was concerned that the ordinance would fly in the face of state law and could open up the city to a costly lawsuit.

“I’m struggling the most with voting for an ordinance that we know is a violation of state law,” said Draheim. “I worry in our fiscal environment that we may find ourselves defending litigation from the state.”

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Councilmember Erik Altmann compared the marijuana ordinance to marriage equality ordinances that were often passed contradicting state laws. East Lansing passed an anti-discrimination measure concerning sexual orientation more than forty years ago.

“I think some of the movement toward marriage equality started with decisions at the local level to disobey state and federal laws,” said Altmann. “In my mind, that’s the main reason to go in this direction.”

Police Chief Jeff Murphy said that there are exceptions to the ordinance that residents should be aware of, however.

When there are big events, said Murphy, officers from other jurisdictions are often called into East Lansing to help monitor the situation. These officers often do not know the local ordinances and enforce the state law instead, he said.

Officers can also choose to enforce the state law if they require probable cause to search property.

“If you need to make an arrest or do an inventory search, an officer can choose to enforce the state law,” said Murphy. “I’d be surprised if I saw a dozen a year.”

Hank, an activist who also worked on the MI Legalize ballot proposal, said the ordinance reflected the will of the voters.

“About 90 percent of people in Michigan don’t think you should go to jail for marijuana,” said Hank. “The people are with us.”

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