Legal battle over decriminalizing marijuana in Grand Rapids gets even more complicated

Apr 8, 2013

The City of Grand Rapids and a group behind the decriminalization of marijuana there are at odds over how to enforce the charter amendment voters passed in November.

In a recent court filing, the city argues police should have discretion, if not the duty, to turn over marijuana charges to the state. That way, offenders would be charged with a crime, not a civil infraction.

DecriminalizeGR (DCGR) attorney Jack Hoffman says that ignores the will of the people.

“There’s so many things that irritated and disturbed me about this,” Hoffman said of the filing during a press conference Monday.

The case began in December, when the Kent County Prosecutor sued the city in an effort to prevent it from implementing the amendment. He took issue mainly with a provision that prohibits city police officers from reporting marijuana offenses to him.

The city argued the case was premature, since it hasn't implemented the amendment yet. The judge agreed, allowing the city to begin implementing the amendment early this year.

But then the city manager decided against implementing the amendment, until the judge ruled on the merits of the case. He says he wanted to avoid confusion among residents and police.

“Is it valid under state law or not? Is the whole thing valid? Is part of it valid?” Grand Rapids attorney Catherine Mish speculated Monday. She’s filed a motion seeking a declaratory judgment in the case.

She says the city plans to give police officers discretion to turn over potential felony charges to the prosecutor for review.

But Hoffman says under that plan, “nothing would have changed, the whole election would have been for naught.” He accuses the city of flip-flopping on the issue.

“The people who voted for the amendment will still have their civil infractions, she’s going to leave that on the books,” Hoffman said, “But it’s going to have no meaning because she’s going to get the judge to tell the police you have a duty to report state criminal law marijuana violations to the prosecutor.”

Mish says it appears DCGR is the party that’s changing its mind.  

“The voters were told by DCGR that this city charter amendment was supposed to be about moving misdemeanors to civil infractions. Something they didn’t argue before the election was that they want all of the high-level felony offenses, involving hard core drug dealers, to be treated as $25 civil infractions,” Mish said.  

“I don’t think that’s what voters approved in November and the city is trying to implement what we think the voters approved,” Mish said.

In a court filing, she said a conflict exists between the city and DCGR “over the proper interpretation and legal effectiveness of the City Charter amendment concerning marijuana.” She asks the judge to allow a counter-suit against DCGR.

Hoffman acknowledges DCGR intentionally left marijuana “sales” off the amendment. He also recognizes the city manager has discretion to draw up and enforce rules for the police department. But he says the way Mish is asking the court for clarification before implementation is “inappropriate.”

“If you sincerely believed that the welfare of the community lies in giving the police the most possible power over the citizens that would be a great reason to make the arguments that the city attorney is making,” Hoffman said.

A hearing in the case is set for April 24.