Despite judge’s approval, Grand Rapids waits to decriminalize marijuana

Feb 20, 2013

The City of Grand Rapids is waiting before it implements a charter amendment that decriminalizes marijuana possession. Voters passed the initiative last November.

But the Kent County prosecutor is suing the city to prevent it from taking effect. The prosecutor argues it’s against state and federal laws for Grand Rapids police officers to issue only a civil infraction for marijuana possession. It would be sort of like a parking ticket. Ann Arbor has had similar rules for decades.

The prosecutor tried to get a restraining order to stop the city’s administration from implementing the charter, while the judge heard the merits of the case.

But Kent County Circuit Court Judge Paul Sullivan said it was okay for the city to make the change before he decides the case. Sullivan declined the restraining order because he said the prosecutor couldn’t prove it would cause any immediate harm.

Mayor George Heartwell, one of a few elected city leaders who supported the charter change, said he was “pleased” by that ruling. In late January, Heartwell said the city would implement the change within about a month.

But now, Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom says the city will wait for a decision on the actual merits of the case.

“My job is to implement (the charter change) and I’m trying to do it in a way that the city doesn’t expose itself to lawsuits, doesn’t cause confusion in our citizens and doesn’t cause someone to be harmfully arrested by understanding the law to be one way and have it actually be a completely different way,” Sundstrom said.

Sundstrom says he and other city officials met with some county judges, who explained Judge Sullivan is likely to rule on the case in late April. He explains more details in a written statement released this afternoon.

“With that understanding, it made sense to both myself and the city commission that we should delay the implementation of the charter amendment until we have a decision from the courts,” Sundstrom said. He’s quick to point out the city commission wants him to implement the change as soon as possible.

“We don’t think that’s an unreasonably long time to wait to make sure that this is constitutional,” Sundstrom said.

Backers of the new charter amendment say the city is already causing confusion by changing its mind.

Jack Hoffman is an attorney for DeriminalizeGR, the group that supported the amendment. He says people are upset about the delay, especially since the judge ruled the city does not have to wait for a ruling to do what voters want.

“For six weeks, we’re hearing ‘It’s going to happen. It’s on track. Don’t worry about it. We just got a few more details to put in order.’ And then all of the sudden on Tuesday ‘oh we’re not going to do it.’ So what happened?” Hoffman said.

Hoffman says waiting for this ruling doesn’t guarantee the city won’t get taken to court again. Hoffman says Prosecutor Bill Forsyth has already informed Hoffman he’d appeal the ruling if Forsyth loses.

Sundstrom says if an appeal did come, he would not wait to implement the change at that point.

“The arguments that I’m hearing are not convincing to me,” Hoffman said. “The people who are making them may believe them themselves. But I’m not convinced. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Sundstrom says he understands people are upset. He says he’s been getting a lot of email complaining about his decision.

“It’s been almost four months since the voters said ‘we don’t want our citizens to be criminals,” Hoffman said. He notes it passed overwhelmingly, with 58-percent of voters in favor.  

“So it may not be a big deal to some people but to those people who are getting lifetime criminal records it’s a big deal, right?” Hoffman proposed.