Proposal 1 passage presents challenges for area law enforcement

MECOSTA, OSCEOLA COUNTIES — Prior the Nov. 6 election, law enforcement officials from the local area and around the state campaigned against Proposal 1, claiming it would lead to more traffic fatalities, black market activity and youths using drugs.

Now that voters in Michigan passed the proposal, which legalizes the use and sale of recreational marijuana, police and prosecutors say their jobs will be more challenging, time-consuming and costly.

“Our cases aren’t going to go away because something that was illegal is now legal. They’re just going to change — they’re going to become more difficult,” Osceola County Prosecutor Anthony Badovinac said last week. “I think there’s more cracks and crevices to look at. Instead of a simple possession case, we’ll be looking into amounts. We’ll be looking into whether it’s being transported. We’ll still look at it.”

Last month, Badovinac was one of 56 county prosecutors in Michigan to sign a statement released by the anti-Proposal 1 group Healthy and Productive Michigan, urging voters to reject the measure. Mecosta County Sheriff Todd Purcell signed a similar announcement, backed by most of Michigan’s county sheriffs.

Todd Purcell

“(Recreational marijuana) is something that is still against the law federally and it’s going to cause a lot of issues that I don’t think people realize,” Purcell said. “We’re working closely with the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association to develop directives and operational policies. We’re all going to have to put our heads together.”

According to the Associated Press, the new law regulating recreational pot will go into effect 10 days after the vote is certified by the Board of State Canvassers — which is expected to happen next month, at the latest. People 21 or older will be allowed to have, use and grow the drug, but the process of establishing regulations for its retail sale could take about two years.

Under the new law, people will be allowed to carry 2 1/2 ounces of marijuana in public, as long as they are not on lands owned by the federal government or K-12 schools. People are allowed to have up to 10 ounces of pot at home.

Smoking marijuana in public is banned, along with driving under the influence. Because federal law supersedes state policies, employers still will be allowed to drug test and penalize workers for pot at their own discretion.

In Osceola County, Proposal 1 failed by a 55-45 percent tally. In Mecosta, the measure barely passed, with 7,825 votes (just over 50 percent) in support and 7,788 in opposition.

Statewide, the margin of victory was much larger, with 56 percent of the electorate (2.5 million votes) in support and 44 percent (1.8 million votes) against.

“The state voters passed it, and if the voters want it, it’s something we have to deal with,” Purcell said. “We have seen laws change before, and laws will change again.”

However, Purcell said, enforcement of the new law will be a challenge. In particular, Purcell said he is concerned about drivers using marijuana.

Since using marijuana for medical purposes was approved 10 years ago, Purcell said, the number of people driving under the influence has significantly gone up in the area. He expects those numbers to continue going up now that marijuana laws are more lax.

Purcell said the trouble is now and always has been that after an officer makes a traffic stop, say, for a driver who is weaving in and out of their lane, it can be difficult to prove that person has been smoking pot. While there are tests for alcohol, like the Breathalyzer, there is no comparable roadside test for marijuana.

BADOVINAC

Instead, officers are forced to request drivers take a blood test at a state-approved health lab. If more drivers are being asked to take blood tests, Badovinac said, it’s easy to picture labs becoming inundated.

“If you’re smart, you would get two of the brightest kids you know in chemistry class, and you would either open up labs that do blood testing as quick as possible, or you would come up with a roadside test to determine how much marijuana is in a person’s system,” Badovinac said. “Whoever does that is going to make a lot of money, because we need a test like that, and we don’t have it yet.”

Another issue regarding enforcement was brought up by Purcell: While there is a set limit for how much alcohol may be in a person’s blood in order to drive safely (.08 percent in Michigan), there is no such limit for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

“Now, the officer has to articulate why the person’s ability to operate was impaired by the drug. But there’s no test there to back it up,” Purcell said. “We’re going to have to wait and see if the state legislature addresses this.”

Another issue that has come up in recent weeks is whether or not people with pending pot cases should be prosecuted under the new laws, or the old ones. According to the Associated Press, some prosecutor’s offices around the state are going the extra step of considering granting clemency in some pot cases.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said last week he’ll consider expunging any past marijuana convictions that otherwise would have complied with the new state law. The prosecutor in Kent County issued a similar statement following the election.

Don’t expect Badovinac to follow suit.

“I don’t think it’s our job to grant clemency. If the legislature, or the voters want us to do it, that’s one thing. To me, (clemency) just convolutes the matter,” he said. “We’re going to prosecute until the law changes, then we’ll change just like the law does.”

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