East Lansing joined a growing number of cities seeking to lesson penalties for marijuana use, but the city’s efforts left out a large block of people: Anyone older than 21.
City council on Oct. 11 adopted a new ordinance that legalized small amounts of weed on private property, and reduced the penalty for possessing marijuana on public property to a $25 civil infraction.
But those local laws only apply to people under 21. A restriction in the city’s charter prevents it from setting any rules for marijuana use for those 21 and up. That means police are likely to look to state law — which still bans the use of marijuana.
“Nothing in the ordinance says marijuana is legal, and that is what I’ve been trying to tell people,” City Attorney Tom Yeadon said. “East Lansing doesn’t have a penalty that applies to people who are over 21 and on private property.”
State law sets marijuana possession as a 90-day misdemeanor for use and a 100-day misdemeanor for possession, Yeadon said.
“The charter unfortunately had the unintended consequence of handcuffing the city so it could not make marijuana a civil infraction for persons over 21,” Yeadon said. “If the charter restriction wasn’t there, I am convinced the city council would have made it a civil infraction for everybody.”
Police Chief Jeff Murphy said officers generally are choosing not to enforce state law and instead letting marijuana users over 21 go without penalty, as long as they carry less than an ounce of the drug.
“Police can always choose if we want to enforce a law or not,” Murphy said. “With marijuana, we haven’t enforced state law at all, but that is mostly because it’s not a busy time of the year.”
That means police may choose to enforce the state law when dealing with large crowds, including on Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, home football games and welcome week. The city often brings in extra law enforcement officers from Ingham County, Lansing and Meridian Township to handle larger crowds in the city. Those departments, Murphy said, are more likely to enforce state law.
“If you run into one of those officers with marijuana, you will probably get arrested,” Murphy said. “That is the bigger risk for residents.”
And the notion that marijuana is legal in East Lansing — spread in some news reports and by social media — is misleading and likely to harm residents who might think otherwise, Murphy said.
“And those reports will get residents in trouble,” he said.
City Councilmember Susan Woods voted for new ordinance to lessen marijuana restrictions in the city. She said she was under the false assumption that marijuana would be legal for those over 21.
“That is a discrepancy that isn’t fair, and we didn’t pick it up,” Woods said. “This is something I’ll bring up with my fellow councilmembers.
“It’s obviously something we need to rectify.”
East Lansing resident Emily Fenn, 22, wasn’t aware that marijuana is illegal.
“I thought I could smoke weed after the ordinance passed and multiple articles said it was legal,” Fenn said. “How was this missed, and how was everyone wrong?”
Tyler Fassezke, 21, is another East Lansing resident who confused about the city’s weed laws.
“People could have incriminated themselves without even knowing it,” Fassezke said. “Those people need to know it’s illegal before that starts happening.”