Michael Whitty, Detroit, Michigan

Few people have a history of activism as long as Michael Whitty. He first became involved with cannabis law reform efforts in the 1970s in Detroit, Michigan, where he is active still. But his activism has not been confined to Michigan. Mike is known as Dr Detroit in both Detroit and the Bay Area for his idealism and activism.

Michael was deeply involved in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived for many years while teaching at SF State, University of San Francisco and Santa Clara University.  He is a lecturer now on Drug Policy Reform at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

“I was baptized by Saint Dennis Peron,” Michael says of the renowned cannabis advocate famous for saying all use is medical. “That was the ocean I swam in.” He met Peron in 1985 at a Rainbow Gathering in the Ozarks. Michael, who was teaching at Santa Clara University at the time, became a member of Peron’s original Cannabis Buyers’ Club in San Francisco. He worked with Peron and a “who’s who” of activists to help pass Proposition 215, the first state medical marijuana law, in 1996.

Michael was in the Bay Area for the federal raids in 2001 that inspired the founding of Americans for Safe Access. As ASA co-founder Steph Sherer was organizing protests for the federal trial of author and activist Ed Rosenthal, Michael supported Rosenthal’s efforts. He became a member of San Francisco ASA, and has taught the Advocacy Module for Oaksterdam University.  He participates via phone and zoom with California activists, including the Brownie Mary Club of the California Democrats.and Cannamaste, the cannabis spiritual group founded by Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris.

In Michigan, Michael, along with his wife Gail (51 years together), is deeply involved with political organizing. He was among the founders of the Cannabis Caucus in the Michigan Democratic Party and works to educate educators, prosecutors and lawmakers on cannabis policy. 

“We achieved the state legalization victory in Michigan two years ago, but there are still prisoners serving long sentences,” Michael says. “We’re pressuring the governor to pardon them so they can be released. We worked hard to get her and the attorney general elected, but you have to keep reminding them of our support and what they still need to do.”  Michigan's Michael Thompson has been granted a parole board hearing which may result in the Michigan Governor granting a pardon for Thompson at the recommendation of the State's Attorney General, Dana Nessel.

Michael and other Michigan activists such as Brandy Zink, head of ASA Detroit, are also working with members of Congress on national legislation, including Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, a cosponsor of the SAFE banking bill that would allow state-licensed cannabis businesses to access financial services.

Coalition building is key to being effective, in Michael’s view, but he sees many grassroots activists as inwardly focused. 

“It’s not enough to just hang out on the websites and stay in the ‘cannabis ghetto,’” he says. “You have to get a seat at the table, whether that’s by writing a check or getting involved with whatever political party appeals to you.”

He sees an analogy with gay rights gains due to the power of coming out with family and friends. “When people realize they have gay friends, it takes the edge off the stigma,” he says. “Cannabis users still have a big stigma, so we still have that work to do.”

At 78 years old, Michael is not slowing down. He’s still out in the community giving speeches, and doing outreach with seniors.

“My first experiences with cannabis in the 1960s were all about the liberating joy of it, and my advocacy focuses on the psychological and spiritual benefits,” he says. “It’s not just about palliative pain relief. Philosophical insights and visionary values help us better understand cannabis.”  Michael embraces the holistic health approach of physicians such as the cannabis researcher Dr. Donald Abrams, who consider the lessons of Chinese medicine and brings a consideration of the whole person to a diagnosis.  “We can see the benefit of adding self-remedies to medicine, which is what cannabis is for many people,” Michael says.

In his long career of advocacy, Michael has had the opportunity to meet, be inspired by, and collaborate with an amazing collection of activists, including Jack Herer, Denis Peron, Chris Conrad, Mikki Norris, David Goldman, and Drs. Frank Lucido and Tod Mikyuriya, among many others. He carries their original vision forward. 

“We need to advocate for the non-corporate side of this--community building, human unity and spiritual ideas,” he says. “This can be an effort to restore community in an atomized world.” 

At the same time, he has an eye on how to get things done politically.

“In election cycles, we have to be involved with the campaigns,” he says. “We need a Senate that will pass federal bills, so we have to pay attention to the practicalities that advance our issue.

This profile was originally published in the August 2020 ASA Activist Newsletter