Retired Mich. cops say legal marijuana would help police-community relations

"This is a financial interest that these police and prosecutors have that they never mention to the public," a retired officer said. "It's policing for profit."

By Amy Biolchini

WALKER, Mich. — A group of retired Michigan police officers is campaigning for legal marijuana, pushing back against the majority opinion of law enforcement organizations in the state.

"They want to keep it illegal because they want to be able to search any and every car or person they come in contact with by the claim that, (sniff sniff) I smell marijuana, get out of your car or up against the wall," said Howard Wooldridge, a retired detective from the Bath Township Police Department who is now a federal lobbyist and a member of COPS, Citizens Opposing Prohibition.

"Driving while black is still a problem in this state and across this country -- and the smell of marijuana is the hook to continue police action, which is often illegal and certainly repugnant," he said.

Wooldridge was one of three former Michigan police officers who gathered Thursday for a press call organized by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Also in attendance was Neill Franklin, the executive director of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; retired Wayne County Sheriff's detective and current state Sen. Vincent Gregory, D-Lathrup Village; and Margeaux Bruner, a marijuana advocate who serves on the state's Impaired Driving Safety Commission.

So far, nearly every county sheriff in Michigan and a large number of county prosecutors have voiced their opposition to Proposal 1, which would legalize recreational marijuana for adults 21 and over. Police leadership organizations -- Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police and the Michigan Sheriffs Association -- have also endorsed the opposition campaign run by Healthy and Productive Michigan.

The group that gathered Thursday at a law office in downtown Detroit sought to present a different narrative.

Black and brown communities have long been targeted by police as they seek to make arrest quotas -- and the smell of marijuana offers police an easy introduction to search a vehicle, home or to seize property through civil asset forfeiture, Franklin said.

Civil asset forfeiture -- the practice by which police departments can stop and detain someone, and take their cash and property -- is sometimes used to fund the general operations of police departments, Franklin said.

"This is a financial interest that these police and prosecutors have that they never mention to the public," Wooldridge said. "It's policing for profit."

In 2016, 304 law enforcement agencies in Michigan reported receiving $12.2 million in proceeds from civil asset forfeiture. In 10 percent of the cases, no one was charged with the violation for which the forfeiture was authorized. Of the 4,955 cases related to controlled substances, 25 percent of them were marijuana-related.

Decades of those interactions have created mistrust between officers and the community they serve -- which makes officers less effective, Nelson said.

"When it comes to the relationship between police and community -- namely black, brown and poor communities, this is the cornerstone for creating an opportunity to repair those relationships," Franklin said.

Last week, the Detroit NAACP and several other African American community leaders voiced their opposition to Proposal 1. They argued a recreational marijuana industry wouldn't bring opportunities to people of color -- and that their neighborhoods would be disproportionally targeted by the industry.

Healthy and Productive Michigan has also argued drugged driving crashes would increase should Proposal 1 pass. 

"Officers have been doing this for years. It's offensive to the officers working the road by saying all of a sudden they're not going to have the ability to determine if a person is impaired," said Steve Miller, a retired sergeant with the Canton Township Police Department. " The best tool for determining that is the officer themselves."

A new report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice, where marijuana has been legal for the past five years, showed the number of citations for marijuana-only impairment has remained at seven percent of all DUI arrests from 2014 to 2017. And drivers in fatal crashes who tested above the legal limit of THC decreased from 2016 to 2017, the Denver Post reported.

Voters will decide the fate of Proposal 1 at the polls Tuesday, Nov. 6. 

So far the opposition campaign has raised more than double the funds of the group behind the ballot initiative. 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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