Michigan medical marijuana issue may make Nov. ballot

May 04, 2004

Tracy Davis, Ann Arbor News

Organizers say they have gathered enough signatures to put a medical marijuana question before Ann Arbor voters on the November ballot.

Scio Township Trustee Charles Ream, a 16-year veteran of the township board, with about a dozen volunteers, spearheaded the effort to gather about 6,900 signatures from city voters. As an amendment to the city charter, 4,175 signatures, or 5 percent of all registered voters, are required, according to acting city clerk Ron Olson.

The signatures must be reviewed and verified by the city clerk's office, and the city attorney's office must ensure the petition language meets legal requirements before it can be officially placed on the ballot. 

But Ream, chairman of the Washtenaw Coalition for Compassionate Care, and other advocates say it's high time to put a vote of decriminalizing medical marijuana use before residents.

'It's absolutely immoral to keep this medicine away from people who need it,' said Ream, who said he's used cannabis himself to alleviate severe stomach pains he once suffered.

The petition asks voters to amend the city charter to not prosecute users of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Coalition supporters began gathering signatures in spring of 2003.

The coalition, which also goes by Medical Marijuana in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline, is loosely affiliated with the Detroit Coalition for Compassionate Care, which has had more than 7,000 signatures validated for a referendum legalizing medical marijuana use placed on the August ballot. A previous effort in Detroit failed when the city's legal department cited technicalities in the language.

A previous effort also failed in Ann Arbor in 2000, when the city clerk gave the group of Libertarians behind the effort the wrong deadline to turn in their signatures. They lost a lawsuit over the incorrect information when a judge ruled it was ultimately the party's responsibility to know when the deadline was.

Ream said the group plans similar moves in Ypsilanti and Saline in 2006 and 2008, respectively, and said a similar ballot initiative was under way in Flint.

Marijuana laws have been a contentious issue in Ann Arbor since the 1960s, when antiwar activist John Sinclair was arrested for giving two joints to undercover Michigan State Police.

His sentence of up to 10 years in prison was later overturned on the grounds that it was excessive, but not before some 15,000 rallied at Crisler Arena on his behalf. Out of that rally in December 1971 was born the idea of Ann Arbor's Hash Bash, an annual pro-pot rally largely focused on reform of marijuana laws.

In 1974, possession and sale of marijuana was made punishable by a $5 fine by amendment to Ann Arbor's charter (it was later raised to $25). In the 1980s, there were two attempts to repeal that amendment; both failed.

Research about the medical benefits of marijuana is hard to come by, largely because of lack of funding from the federal government, advocates say. But Ream points to a vast body of anecdotal evidence he's gathered in researching the topic, such as evidence of early use of marijuana in other cultures and recent government reports.

A 1997 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine touted marijuana use in management of some diseases, and said the federal government should back off.

But many lawmakers have resisted efforts to legalize marijuana, even for medicinal use, citing concerns that it could be a gateway drug, could fall into the hands of illegitimate users like children, or is a veil for the legalization of marijuana use across the board.

Today, eight states - Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Washington - have laws legalizing marijuana for patients with physician recommendations. The sale or use of marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

Ream said the coalition will hold a press conference at 11 a.m. Friday at Arbor Brewing Company, 116 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor. Ream and several other speakers, including the leader of Detroit's initiative, will be on hand.



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