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Marijuana decriminalization will be up to Portage voters

Posted at 4:18 PM, Oct 28, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-28 20:34:38-04

PORTAGE, Mich. — When Portage voters head to the polls on Nov. 3, they'll be deciding whether to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, potentially joining a growing list of cities across the state.

On the ballot, voters will choose whether to approve an amendment to the city charter that would prohibit passage of any future ordinance preventing a person 21 years old or older from possessing or transferring more than one ounce of the drug on private property.

Shall the Charter of the City of Portage, Michigan, be amended by adding a new Section 5.14 to Chapter 5, entitled “Marijuana,” to state that: “Nothing in the Code of Ordinances shall apply to the use, possession or transfer of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, on private property not used by the public, or transportation of 1 ounce or less of marijuana, by a person who has attained the age of 21 years?”

Ken Jonatzke, a medical marijuana caregiver with Citizens for a Safer Portage who helped spearhead the initiative, says it's about time this happen.

"Let them (law enforcement) go after bigger crimes," Jonatzke told FOX 17. "We’ve got a heroin and meth problem that’s out of control. Let’s refocus that effort.”

If passed, Portage would join the ranks for more than a dozen other cities across the state which have made moves to either decriminalize small amounts of marijuana or at least loosen penalties for individuals who get caught with it.

“It’s kind of exciting because I, like a lot of other people, up until about eight years ago was against marijuana," Jonatzke said. "But when I got educated on the benefits of it, if it were discovered today it’d be the newest miracle drug.”

While polls show support for marijuana use continues to increase steadily among Michigan voters, new statewide crime data from the Michigan State Police shows arrests for marijuana use have steadily increased too.

Arrests for marijuana use increased 17 percent, based on MSP data between 2008 and 2014. At the same time, arrests for all other crimes statewide dropped by 15 percent.

"It’s funny, we’re not potheads, not stoners, there’s some police officers who are patients, some attorneys; It’s widely accepted," he said.

Jonatzke acknowledges approval of the charter amendment in Portage would serve to be largely symbolic because laws at the state and federal level still prohibit legal use, but he hopes it at least sends a clear message to law enforcement and politicians of the public's changing mindset.

“We’re making a statement. It’s not going to change the way things are going on right now," he said. "But in Portage they’ll have to make up their mind how they’re going to enforce it.”

When asked about the potential impact on law enforcement in the city, several Portage officials told FOX 17 the city would not be commenting at this time.

Following decriminalization in Grand Rapids in 2013, the Grand Rapids Police Department told FOX 17 they'd seen a substantial decrease in marijuana related cases.

In 2011, the department dealt with 810 marijuana related cases, with 747 of those resulting in arrests and incarceration. The number of similar cases in 2014 was just 98, with all of those cases involving criminal activity beyond the realm of decriminalization.

Statewide, several coalition groups are seeking to place a proposal on the November 2016 ballot to outright legalize marijuana in Michigan.