The mayor on pot

By Andy Balaskovitz

Mayor Bernero asks city attorney to look into how decriminalizing cannabis in the city would work, says pot enforcement is "not a priority for the Lansing Police Department."

Not long after voters in four Michigan cities elected in November to ease restrictions on possessing cannabis, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero got to thinking.

In Flint and Grand Rapids, voters approved ballot initiatives to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot. Bernero called Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell “on a lark” and left him a voicemail saying, “What is this, you crazy hippies decriminalized there? I didn’t realize Grand Rapids was like that.”

“Of course we did,” Heartwell, who supported the move, said in a return voicemail. To Bernero, the votes signaled that such policy was no longer limited to Ann Arbor, which has stood like a beacon since the early 1970s as a place in Michigan where possession would land you only a modest fine.

“Frankly, my big interest started this year when Grand Rapids and others had decriminalized” cannabis possession, Bernero said in an interview Monday night. “I think it’s high time we get rational about marijuana.”

Bernero said he’s directed City Attorney Janene McIntyre — in her first month on the job — to study how those new rules comply with state and federal law should Lansing “decide to go that route.”

And as an “informal policy,” Bernero said, “Enforcement against marijuana use is not a priority for the Lansing Police Department.” Part of McIntyre’s task includes how the city would formalize such a policy, as was done last year in Ypsilanti. “In my view, the Police Department has already proven it’s not a priority.”

For illegal drugs, Interim Lansing Police Chief Mike Yankowski said LPD’s “No. 1 priority is: How does our narcotic sales and illegal trafficking affect violent crime?” Those cases are usually limited to crack, cocaine and heroin, he said — “For the most part, marijuana hasn’t been at the top of the list of violent crime.”

He said the department’s focus is not on possession of small amounts of cannabis, but that LPD would investigate and charge people involved with larger trafficking operations. “Our priority or our focus is not necessarily on a person with a real small amount of marijuana on them.”

Still, it’s not a formal policy within the department, should you get pulled over with a few joints in your car, he said. “It’s still obviously at the discretion of the police officer” depending on the situation, Yankowski said.

On Tuesday, state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, introduced a bill that would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of cannabis statewide.

“There’s no question that criminalizing is not the right approach. I think it’s education and treatment,” Bernero said. “We made a big mistake including marijuana in the War on Drugs.”