Marijuana reflections, 5 years after voters OK’d recreational use

Marquette Deputy Dean Rushford from the Marquette County Sheriff’s Office demonstrates the field sobriety test to Mining Journal Reporter Dreyma Beronja. (Journal photo by Caroline Ray)

MARQUETTE — In 2018, Michigan passed Proposal 1, becoming the 10th state in the U.S. to legalize the use of recreational adult marijuana. Today, the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency goal, as listed on its website, is to promote Michigan as a national model “for a regulatory program that stimulates business growth while preserving safe consumer access to marijuana.”

However, before and after the vote, many residents had reservations about the move to legalize recreational cannabis. In fact, 44% voted against the proposal. But since then — the numbers don’t lie — legalization has normalized the use of the drug.

In February of this year nearly 350,000 pounds and 354,000 fluid ounces of recreational marijuana products were sold in Michigan, and that’s on top of the 17,808 pounds and 7,030 fluid ounces of medicianal marijuana products sold in the state, indicating that the resistance to cannabis use is beginning to dissipate.

Recreational marijuana sales began in 2019, a year after voters approved the referendum. The first legal retail store to open in the Upper Peninsula was the Fire Station in Negaunee Township. Since then, Marquette County has become one of the state’s cannabis “hot spots” with 12 active marijuana licenses as of the end of 2022.

“One of the most profound changes in the community has been the destigmatization of cannabis since we first opened,” Fire Station CEO Logan Stauber said. He said people from “all walks of life” have started to purchase cannabis and explore types of usage for the drug.

“I feel that when we first opened a lot of people had this overwhelming sense of this is going to be terrible for our community. But really if you look at what cannabis legalization has done, it’s taken something that has always been there and brought it to light in a safe manner,” Stauber said.

Now that cannabis is a part of the legal marketplace, it is taxed at a higher rate than most commercial goods. Municipalities receive a combined share of 30% of total state marijuana taxes based on the number of retailers per area. In 2022, Marquette County received over $600,000 in adult-use marijuana tax revenues. The city of Marquette’s coffers also increased by more than $100,000.

Overall that year, the state reported a total of over $1.1 billion in marijuana tax revenue. After distribution among municipalities, the state divided the remaining proceeds between the School Aid Fund for K-12 Education and the Michigan Transportation Fund.

In total, more than $1.8 billion in adult-use marijuana sales was reported for Fiscal Year 2022.

Outside of a general stigma around the usage of cannabis, there were commonly held concerns about legalization’s potential effects on policing and community safety before the law went into effect.

“I was one of them who thought the sky was going to fall in,” Marquette County Sheriff Greg Zyburt said.

However, he said county law enforcement hasn’t experienced a major increase in crime.

“It’s been interesting. Honestly, there really hasn’t been that much difference,” he said. “I just haven’t seen anything to indicate that there’s any problem.”

He echoed other law enforcement officials who said that they’ve noticed an increase in drugged driving in recent years, but that it isn’t necessarily related to marijuana. Impaired driving can be caused by many types of drugs they pointed out. That includes legal prescriptions as well as substances like alcohol, marijuana or illegal drugs.

They also noted that the state has put a lot of effort into training officers to be able to identify drugged driving.

“Impaired driving because of drugs is up, but I think that’s also because of the awareness,” MCSO Capt. Lowell Larson said. “Before we were always focused on alcohol. There were a lot more drugged drivers at the time than we were aware of. I think the advanced training has made the arrest rate for impaired driving under drugs higher.”

Every officer is trained in standard field sobriety tests, which test people’s dexterity, coordination and ability to multitask. Larson said the next level of training is Advanced Roadside Impairment Detection Enforcement, which most MCSO officers have completed.

Since legalization, the state has strongly encouraged departments to implement a high level drug recognition training, local law enforcment officials said. The county also has two drug recognition experts who can be called onto the scene or to the hospital to assist in assessing under what substances an official may be under the influence.

With the combined awareness and increased training, officers agree that roadside patrols haven’t changed much.

“Laws change every day every year, and we roll with whatever Lansing releases for laws. So our interactions with the community is business as usual,” Marquette City Police Department Sgt. Seth Bjorne said.

The most recent addition to the state’s process of decriminalizing marijuana was the implementation of an automatic expungement process. The bill created a standard for expungement, which allows people to clear their record without going through the legal process themselves. The legislation went into effect in April and, thus far has allowed an estimated 235,000 cannabis-related offenses to be expunged from people’s records.

The new expungement law is one of several criminal justice reforms that the state has made, said Jenna Nelson, Marquette County’s chief assistant prosecuting attorney.

Since the expungement of marijuana charges were automatic, the county prosecutor wasn’t responsible for processing those cases. However, they have seen a significant increase in other expungement petitions in recent years.

“I don’t recall one [petition] previously that, at least myself personally, have been opposed to,” Nelson said. “Most of the people who are petitioning have one or two convictions from 20-plus years ago and have moved on.”

She said that to qualify for automatic expungement, “they have to go through and make sure the people meet the criteria for them. So I think that if someone is able to get something like a possession of marijuana off their record …. most of these people do not have a continuing criminal record.”

Expungement can help people with low-level offenses progress forward without the burden of a criminal record. This makes applying for jobs, housing, and education easier and releases people from the social stigma that can go along with having a criminal record.

The state does not have a system for releasing people who are currently incarcerated on marijuana related charges that would now be acceptable under the law. Organizations such as the Last Prisoner Project and the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party are advocating for further reform including the amnesty and expungement for all prisoners incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes in Michigan.

Nelson said the county prosecutor’s office hasn’t dealt with many people still incarcerated for marijuana-related charges because most of the higher level offenses are dealt with federally.

Five years ago, the state’s transition to legalized marijuana may have seemed impossible.

But in for Marquette County at least, the transition has been smooth. And so far, the state appears to have fulfilled it’s promise to promote a economically and socially successful model of legal cannabis production in the United States.

Caroline Ray can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 543


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