“We’ve seen both locally and nationally that criminalization does not work. It does not decrease drug use; it does not decrease overdose deaths.”
By Doug Johnson, Filter
A student group has launched a campaign to decriminalize drug possession and low-level distribution in Ann Arbor, Michigan, after months of consulting with members of the community. The University of Michigan chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) drafted the Ann Arbor Resolution to Advance Sensible Drug Policy. The resolution will be put to the city council, and has already won some political support.
According to Kylee Crook, community organizing and events chair for the SSDP chapter, members made the most of some down time during the pandemic to create the initiative. The effort involved discussions with activists, politicians, treatment providers and people who use drugs, among other diverse groups. “We’ve really been working on the resolution since revamping SSDP. It’s a long game, and a long-term goal of ours,” she told Filter.
The campaign formally launched on March 16, accompanied by a Zoom kickoff event which included speakers such as State Senator Jeff Irwin’s (D-Ann Arbor) chief of staff, Annie Sommerville, as well as SSDP Chapter President Matt Dargay.
“I’m proud to join SSDP in their campaign to decriminalize drug possession in Ann Arbor,” Sen. Irwin said in a press release. “The ‘War on Drugs’ has been a complete failure. Addiction is a health issue, not a crime. We need to focus on treatment and rehabilitation.”
The group’s consultations with various community stakeholders led to a suggested permitted threshold of 15 grams of any drug—significantly higher than in some other North American decriminalization measures. Crook said that they will campaign for the council to adopt the measure in July. A representative from the city said they would forward Filter’s request for comment to the mayor’s office; no comment has been received by publication time.
Drug laws generally lie on the state and federal levels in the United States, but Crook noted that the resolution—rather than “pure” decriminalization—would shift the possession of drugs to be the lowest priority for local law enforcement. It would ban use of city funds or resources to criminalize possession and use of drugs—and do the same for distribution of drugs in quantities below that 15 gram threshold. “Effectively, it decriminalizes by moving it to the lowest priority in Ann Arbor,” Crook said, acknowledging that federal and state drug laws would still apply on paper.
This mechanism isn’t unfamiliar to Ann Arbor. In 2020, the city voted to make entheogens—including psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and ibogaine—the “lowest law enforcement priority.” The city has since started a yearly Entheofest.
Detroit and Seattle are among the cities that have taken similar steps.
“It can be done in cities first, and that’s what we’re really excited for, and it’s what our goal is. Cities have largely led that charge the past few years,” Crook said.
The resolution also calls for increased funding for “proven recovery services.” According to Crook, this means expanding naloxone access in the community—particularly in the private sector—and providing incentives for transitional housing to offer medications for opioid use disorder. “Through conversations with local treatment providers, that’s what they requested and that’s what they needed,” she said.
Like the rest of the US, Michigan is experiencing a rise in overdose deaths. Between September 2020 and September 2021, 2,933 people died of overdose—a 7 percent increase on the previous year. Although decriminalization doesn’t directly address the adulterated drug supply, proponents argue that by decreasing stigma and fears of criminalization, it makes it more likely that people will access lifesaving services.
Ann Arbor is a “liberal college town,” Crook said, and that—together with the support it has already received—makes her optimistic that the resolution could be adopted. While the SSDP chapter is currently focused on the city, it also hopes that the resolution could be used elsewhere going forward.
“We’ve seen both locally and nationally that criminalization does not work. It does not decrease drug use; it does not decrease overdose deaths,” she said. “It’s just not working for us. We need a more public health-oriented approach, and we need a more people-centric approach, and we need a more compassionate approach.”
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.