Decriminalizing marijuana in Grand Rapids gets complicated

Jan 10, 2013

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan is deciding whether he'll allow a new Grand Rapids ordinance de-criminalizing marijuana to take effect while it’s challenged in court.

Voters overwhelmingly passed a city charter amendment in November that makes marijuana possession a civil infraction. People caught by Grand Rapids city police would get a ticket and a small fine.

But a judge stopped the city from implementing the amendment in December after the Kent County prosecutor filed a lawsuit against the city and asked for a temporary restraining order.

Kent County Senior Attorney Timothy McMorrow argued the case for the prosecution Wednesday afternoon.

“The image is that we’re really out here beating up the bushes to try to find as many people smoking pot as we can. That’s not the case,” McMorrow said.

McMorrow says the case isn’t about drug policy. Instead he frames two basic arguments, that can be broken down in all sorts of conflicting detail.

The first problem, McMorrow said, is that the amendment includes language that stops city police officers from reporting violators to the prosecutor so he could decide whether charges under state law are warranted. He says the city is stepping on the prosecutor’s authority.

The second issue is whether the city can even adopt a charter provision that makes a criminal violation, like marijuana possession, punishable by only a civil infraction. McMorrow wondered in his arguments, “Could the city make drunk driving a civil infraction?”

Grand Rapids’ City Attorny Catherine Mish pointed out leaders in Detroit tried to prevent a similar ballot initiative from going before voters because they said it violated state law. But Michigan’s Court of Appeals ordered Detroit’s clerk to put Proposal M on the November ballot. It passed.

Grand Rapids city officials did not attempt to block the proposal from voters and was working out how to implement the changes when the judge’s order stopped the process.

At this point, Mish notes, the judge is only deciding if he should grant the prosecutor his request for an injunction; that would prevent the city from implementing the amendment as the legal case proceeds.

She’s not convinced McMorrow presented enough evidence to show immediate harm to the prosecutor if the city implemented the amendment. She noted to the judge that McMorrow didn’t provide an estimate of how many referrals he’d lose. “Is it two cases? 200? 2,000?” she asked.

McMorrow didn’t know the number. “This is almost on principle more than it is on the number of cases,” he said.

Mish argued people in the city should be able to direct city leaders on how to use their resources. What if the city decided not to do traffic stops and instead focused resources on solving unsolved homicides in the city? What if the city cut down the number of police officers? What would stop the county sheriff’s office from flooding Grand Rapids with its own deputies to generate cases?

“I think if this were a simple case the court would’ve rendered a verbal opinion from the bench,” Mish said.

DecriminalizeGR, the citizen’s group that pushed the charter amendment, is intervening in the case. The ACLU also filed a brief in the case.

“These are very important issues for governance it post-modern America,” DecriminalizeGR’s attorney Jack Hoffman said. “Who’s got the power in the city? Is it the prosecutor? Or is it the city manager, the city commission, and the voters?”