MARQUETTE - Marquette might be years away from people being able to smoke marijuana on their front porches, but in the meantime, the focus of a citizens' initiative is to decriminalize the possession of small quantities of the substance.
Brian Bloch - a local criminal defense attorney with Bloch & Doby - is spearheading the effort to have the city enact an ordinance making the possession of 2.5 ounces or less of marijuana punishable as a civil infraction with a $100 fine.
The nonprofit group, Legalize MQT, wants to take away the stigma associated with being convicted of a minor marijuana offense and relieve the burden among the court and jail systems so they can focus on more serious offenses.
A local group favors the city of Marquette decriminalizing the use of marijuana in small quantities. From left are Mike Marthaler, Brian Bloch and Dr. Curtis Marder. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)
"When you perpetuate a series of lies and you get bad results, and you perpetuate them further, that's how we came into being," Bloch said.
Dr. Curtis Marder, a physician at Marquette General Hospital, said the "Reefer Madness" concept of marijuana causing deviant behavior led to the current array of drug laws.
"There was not one grain of evidence to support that," Marder said.
Marder said the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, has no lethal dose.
"You'll go to sleep if you use too much, but you won't die," he said.
Bloch agreed the old way of thinking was false.
"The rules we had were under a series of beliefs that no longer exist," he said.
Mike Marthaler of Marquette said he has an arrest record for marijuana possession in his hometown of Alpena, and even though he has paid his debt to society and is now a legal medical marijuana patient, his misdemeanor offense shows up on his record when applying for jobs.
AmeriCorps, for example, won't hire people with a drug-related crime on their records, he said.
Marthaler, who is an intern with Marquette County, said: "I am going to re-enter the job market, and it's going to be just as brutal to me."
He said someone having a drug offense who wants to start a new life will find it that much more difficult and without a job, it perpetuates a bad cycle that's a drawback to getting back on track.
In his case, he wants "something that doesn't follow him around for the next 80 years."
Decriminalizing marijuana offenses will help others in his position, he said.
"I still have to live with those consequences," Marthaler said.
Bloch acknowledged a drug conviction holds people down for life.
"As a criminal defense attorney, the criminal justice system - it's just a system," he said. "It doesn't think. It just rolls over people."
It's the belief of Legalize MQT that if the possession of 2.5 ounces or less of marijuana is decriminalized in Marquette, the fines would be paid directly to the city like parking ticket fines. The city would get money from the fines directly, although the savings concerning police - who instead could focus on more serious crimes - would be exponentially larger, he said.
Bloch said that since he believes Michigan is heading toward bankruptcy, that would make financial sense.
"Instead of making money on pot, they're spending money on enforcing it," he said.
Bloch said the next step is to appeal to the Marquette City Commission, which he spoke to at a recent meeting about the possible decriminalization of marijuana, about passing an ordinance. That isn't the only option, however, as citizens can start efforts to get the issue on the ballot, just as was the case in the state with medical marijuana.
Mike Angeli, chief of the Marquette City Police department, said the department is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"Internally, we've decided to see how things shake out in the state," Angeli said.
Angeli said he didn't want to elaborate on whether Michigan is moving toward the legalization of the recreational use of the drug, but added, "Who knows? The trend might be to go in that direction."
Mayor Robert Niemi said he personally isn't in favor of decriminalizing marijuana, but the commission would be receptive to members of Legalize MQT.
"Certainly we're willing to listen to them and look at their information," he said.
The states of Colorado and Washington have legalized the recreational use of pot, allowing for regulation and taxation. In November, the residents of Lansing, Jackson and Ferndale voted to remove civil and criminal penalties associated with small amounts of marijuana. Michigan House Bill No. 4623, which decriminalizes the possession of less than one ounce to a civil infraction, is in legislative process.
Also, Michigan voters in 2008 approved the legal use of medical marijuana.
"Substance abuse is a public health problem," Marder said. "It's not a criminal problem."
Although Bloch said he believes marijuana is recreationally less harmful than alcohol, it is a "gateway drug" because it introduces users to drug dealers.
However, Marthaler said since cigarettes are sold at gas stations, putting marijuana in a safe, regulated place would be beneficial.
Bloch said: "Take away the money, the drug dealers will go away. They're not in it because they love the weed. They love the money."
The public also seems to be heading toward drug law reform.
A new CNN/ORC poll showed 55 percent of Americans questioned said marijuana should be made legal, with 44 percent disagreeing. According to the poll and numbers from General Social Survey polling, support for legalizing marijuana has risen from 16 percent in 1987 to 26 percent in 1996, 34 percent in 2002 and 43 percent in 2012.
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.