The writer is a local freelancer, author and former reporter at The Detroit News, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer.
By Darrell Dawsey
The war on drugs has been a failure. For most of us, that’s not breaking news.
Even many of the staunchest former drug warriors have long conceded that the reckless, draconian criminal justice policies that grew out of the 1980s and '90s drug epidemics have done little to stop the flow of drugs or eliminate Americans' taste for getting high.
Instead, four decades of moralistic thrashing has left the United States with little to show other than one of the world's largest incarceration rates and the exorbitant costs of a sprawling prison-industrial complex.
Recognizing this, political leaders at all levels and in both parties have begun to rethink policies that led us here. In a new age of reform, talk of locking 'em up and tossing away the key has segued into discussions about eliminating mandatory minimums, ending racial disparities in sentencing, bail reform and marijuana decriminalization/legalization.
Even Michigan got its purple ass in on the act when voters decided in 2018 to make weed legal not only for medical use, but for recreational consumption as well.
Then there’s Detroit.
Whose community benefits?
Despite the statewide vote, despite the recent successful opening of a handful of recreational marijuana dispensaries in the metro area, leaders in the city continue to give a middle finger to the majority on the legalization issue.
► Related: This Is Metro Detroit's First Recreational Weed Shop, Jan. 21
At no time has this disregard for voters been as starkly clear as this week, when a Detroit councilman and the city’s police chief teamed up to put forward dishonest, confusing and contradictory marijuana policy proposals.
Councilman James Tate, the man behind an expiring “temporary ban” on implementation of legal recreational weed sales in the city — a lawmaker openly refusing to follow the law — announced this week he would maintain this prohibition until at least March 31. Never mind that Tate and the council had more than a year to address the matter before legal dispensaries went online. Never mind that the city will continue to lose out on tax dollars legal dispensaries generate. Never mind that numerous enterprising and law-abiding Detroiters, eager to cash in on a multi-billion-dollar legal weed market, are left idling on the sidelines while Tate continues to stall and fake interest in a “community benefits” regulation that he swears he’s “looking into” in the name of the same people he’s cutting out of the game.
Think about that: In one of the blackest cities in the country, an African-American city councilman keeps black entrepreneurs out of a booming legal market and uses the thin veil of support for “community benefits” to do it.
(Meanwhile, as NORML attorney Matt Abel pointed out in Metro Times, Detroit remains home to 528 bars, 427 licensed liquor stores, and 585 beer and wine licenses.)
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Police Chief James Craig, a man who’s never been accused of passing an opportunity to posture for TV, came out of his face this week with an outlandish claim – that more than half of the murders in Detroit in 2020 have been related to black-market marijuana sales.
I will be the first to concede the police should have a better handle than most of us on the causes of local crime. But in a city still awash with crack, heroin and other drugs commonly associated with violence, claims that the marijuana market has suddenly become Detroit’s biggest hub of bloodshed and mayhem ought to be backed with evidence.
So far, Craig has yet to produce any. (And simply pounding a podium doesn’t count.)
Moreover, when Deadline Detroit reached out to our law enforcement sources, let’s just say Craig’s claim drew skepticism, including from some of the same officers on the streets dealing with the city’s violence.
“You might have people who do marijuana,” said one DPD detective, “but I don’t think (the violence) is because of marijuana.”
Asked about the chief’s claim that 60 percent of the city’s 2020 killings so far have been because of the black market weed trade, the detective was even more forthright: “It’s ridiculous.”
But this being Detroit, inconvenient truths -- especially about poor folks and people of color -- don’t stop public policy shitshows.
Because of this alleged surge in weed shootings, the chief said he’ll soon be deploying a “task force” (sigh) to crack down on black-market dealers who carry guns. "We're going to be aggressive about it, while still adhering to constitutional policing," said Craig without a hint of irony.
Yes, James Craig — the same chief who treats hyperbolic graffiti scrawlings as legitimate threats against cops, who patrols Facebook for social media posts that bad mouth him, who wants to turn the city into a surveillance state with shoddy facial recognition tech, who openly worries about brutal cops being “overcharged” by the county prosecutor after beating down people in Greektown — wants you to know that, even as he’s conjuring up weed-related shooting sprees to justify crackdowns on marijuana dealers, he’ll still be safeguarding your constitutional rights.
People have spoken and want to smoke 'em
Or we could just say fuck all that and bow to common sense and the will of the voters by getting on with the business of opening up the legal market. After all, if Detroit were allowed to actually foster a thriving legal market for weed, the underground market would not be such a draw anymore.
"This crime is not being caused by marijuana, but by the prohibition of marijuana," Abel told The Detroit News. "What we need to do is make it available through retail stores, but the City Council has been dragging their feet on that for more than a year."
Tate could still pretend to be pushing for community benefits. And Craig could still arrest all the illegal gun-toters that he wants without tossing a wet blanket on lawful marijuana users.
We all know you don’t have to like a law, or a democratic expression of the people’s will, to follow and respect it.
But the last people you’d expect to have to explain this to are those charged with making the laws or those who are supposed to enforce them.