Saturday, February 18, 2012

Medical Marijuana Law Needs Clarification, But Should We Decriminalize Marijuana?

The people of the State of Michigan enacted the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, and I certainly intend to abide by the people’s wishes. However, most people that I have talked to voted for the Act as an act of compassion for those in pain, and few of us want to deny something that will help alleviate the pain for those suffering. Most did not intend to legalize marijuana.

Nonetheless, to the extent that stores selling supplies to grow marijuana have proliferated throughout the state, people have the perception (whether or not it is a reality) that the law has opened the door for marijuana use far beyond the intent of the people who voted for the Act. Numerous provisions of the act are very ambiguous, leading to unequal enforcement of the Act throughout the state. More clarity is needed.

The entire issue of providing more clarity while maintaining the intent of the Act (as well as staying within the legal wording of the Act) is before the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives, chaired by Representative John Walsh. John is a very bright and fair chairman, and I feel confident whatever he and his committee comes up with will be of high quality.

I have visited a dispensary, and witnessed for myself what appeared to be a service that is needed for both caregivers and patients, in matching them up and recommending appropriate marijuana based substances in a multitude of forms. I believe there is a place for these dispensaries, properly regulated, and I would support such recommendations if they come out of committee. I have talked with Representative Walsh about these, and I sense he agrees with my conclusion. So, stay tuned on that.

On a broader note, I am significantly rethinking my opposition to the legalization of marijuana. Recently I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Legislative Black Caucus, at which Michelle Alexander spoke. Michelle is a graduate of Stanford Law School (my alma mater), a former Associate Professor at Stanford Law School and currently a professor at the Law School at Ohio State – and thus, in my opinion, is a credible source. She has written a book entitled, “The New Jim Crow”, about which she spoke that day.

The theses of her book is that the mass incarceration of black males that stems from the “drug war” causes far more problems than the drugs would themselves. I had never before connected the dots as follows:

(1) marijuana use and possession is illegal,

(2) police attempts to enforce the law fall disproportionately on the poor and especially the urban blacks, (Alexander’s research indicates that this is not just a problem for blacks, but also for the poor of any race or national origin. Nonetheless, the “color blindness” with which we consider the issue contributes to the failure to objectively look at the unintended consequences of our policies.)

(3) young blacks are taken out of their communities and put into prison and labeled “a criminal”,

(4) once released from prison, the now “ex con” finds difficulty in finding employment, and in desperation to survive, commits further crimes of drug distribution, burglary, etc. and all too often re-arrested and sent back to prison,

(5) the absence of employed black males in the urban black population contributes to poverty among the urban blacks,

(6) single parent families in poverty contribute to poor student performance among school age children, contributing to struggling students academically and a high drop out rate, particularly among black males who have few successful black male role models and among whom it is not culturally “cool” to be smart, and

(7) this contributes to the continuation of the cycle. This results in not only a dysfunctional black community in the urban areas, but also enormous costs of maintaining our prisons. Michelle.

Michelle Alexander’s presentation caused me to wonder if the hazards of marijuana use (of which there are clearly some) come close to the damage the criminalization of marijuana use has caused. Looking at the issue as an economist does, weighing the costs vs. the benefits, has it been worth it? To me, it now appears not.

I will be exploring this issue further, looking at the difference between “legalizing the use of marijuana” vs. “decriminalizing the use of marijuana”, or if there is any difference at all. Then I intend to work with others interested in this issue to craft a solution. I do not support a people’s referendum on this issue, as once enacted, any tweaks found to be beneficial in the future would require a ¾ vote in both houses of the legislature, which is always very difficult to get. I perceive this may be an issue for which a coalition of groups may form, as there is the perception that the approximately $2 billion spent in Michigan each year on corrections surely could be used in other areas, such as education. A preliminary study suggests that perhaps about $300 million per year could be saved in police protection, judicial and legal services and corrections combined if marijuana use and possession were decriminalized. If marijuana convictions lead to later crimes, the savings may be more.

A study of the Michigan inmate population shows that, as of 2007, about 9% of the inmates were there because of “drug crimes”, plus an indeterminate number of drug related crimes within the 23% whose most serious crime was nonviolent. So, the racial disparity in impact of marijuana laws may be a much more important impetus in revisiting such laws, although there may be more political support for reducing the costs of corrections as the motivation.

P.S. Response to questionnaire from in the 2010 campaign:

Oh, by the way, I looked up my answer to the questionnaire in the 2010 campaign, and it appears I am being consistent, other than my recent wondering about legalizing marijuana.

“I support the patient’s right to access marijuana for pain control purposes. Some friends have related to me the relief they have experienced, and I am for that.
I do not favor the widespread use of marijuana, however. I understand the arguments that people should be free to do whatever they wish with their bodies. I have also heard the arguments that marijuana use does not cause health problems despite long-term use. (I don’t know if I am completely convinced, but be that as it may.) Nonetheless, I see any non-prescription drug use as counterproductive to an individual’s success in life and do not support its promotion. I fought to keep my college fraternity free of drugs and have never used an illegal drug, and don’t wish to encourage their use.

To the extent that a patient can get the equivalent of a doctor’s prescription (I understand they don’t “prescribe” marijuana, just opine that marijuana may enhance their pain control.) with a patient simply saying they experience pain (a subjective thing that doctor cannot objectively document), that feels more open to what I feel comfortable with. Nonetheless, that is what the people of the state have approved, and I will not seek to repeal the law. Thus, that means I would not seek to impair the care-giver-patient relationship provided for within the MMMA.”



  1. Kudos to you. As a former prosecutor, and a graduate of the same school where Ms. Alexander teaches, I hope you will consider my opinion credible. I too have come to understand the harms associated with marijuana prohibition far outweigh whatever benefits it yields. We spend billions every year enforcing and interdicting, and billions more prosecuting and incarcerating those arrested, all with no impact on use, potency, or availability. Meanwhile we forgo millions more in potential tax revenue (and countless jobs) trying and failing to prohibit what most economists agree is our largest cash crop.
    Alcohol no doubt inflicts a substantial toll on society, but as the 1920's experience shows, the prohibition of alcohol was flat-out disastrous. The parallels to marijuana are obvious. I say we tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, and use honest public education to discourage use by teens and treat those with addictions. As plummeting cigarette use rates show, that strategy can work. In fact, the most recent data shows that, in some age groups, teen use of (illegal) marijuana now outpaces (legal, but regulated) cigarette smoking. That is enough evidence for me.

  2. It is very refreshing to know that there actually are reps out there with open-minds and seeking the truth. I am 64 years old,a devout Christian,and a grower & consumer of Cannabis for 46 years now. I don't do drugs (legal or illegal),I have always been open about this,and my community loves me. Thank you Rick Olsen. Know the truth and it shall set you free.
    Call me anytime at 231-882-4496.

  3. I agree, very refreshing to see that some officials are not scared to discuss this topic despite the fact that it is the largest threat to our country's unity. Realizations need to be furthered about the harmlessness of this organism and its fruits.
    Thanks for shedding some light Rick!

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