Eric Herbers knows about pain, and disability, and living with both. The 39 year-old suffers from muscular dystrophy and is a parapalegic, confined to an electric wheelchair. He's also a father, an entrepreneur and the leader of a petition drive in Clare to legalize the only medicine that makes him smile- marijuana.
Herbers owns and operates Hilltop Novelties, a small shop that sells shirts, smoking accessories and pipes in nearby Harrison, Michigan, a tiny town of 2,114 people. The signatures collected on the petitions will secure a spot on the November ballot that would offer voters the chance to legalize the possession, use, transfer and transportation of 2.5 ounces of marijuana for every adult 21 years and older. That 2.5 ounce figure matches the possession amount allowed under Michigan's medical marijuana law; 115,000 patients are registered under the program, which was approved by statewide vote in 2008.
Herbers says it's the nature of close-knit communities that makes them ideal for petition drives.
"Being in small communities, everybody knows one another," Herbers said. When someone is sick, everybody knows. When someone gets well, everybody knows that, too. "Success stories spread through the community fast," he acknowledged.
"There is so much support in the small communities," said Herbers. "All ages of people are coming out of the closet."
That sounds right to Rick Phillips, the 55 year-old man who is coordinating the legalization effort in Harrison. Phillips, Herbers and other activists launched that petition drive two weeks ago with an afternoon's work, where half the required signatures were collected.
"The majority of people that signed it (the petition) were my age or older," Phillips admitted.
Herbers knows all about senior support for sativa, describing with a chuckle a man in his 70-s who patronizes the pipe shop. "He's got his card and everything," Herbers said, "and a friend who's in her 60-s does, too."
Phillips has his own story of success with the marijuana plant. He's a cancer survivor- he has CLL, a form of leukemia, which is in remission- and a drastic fall left him with significant back injuries. "It's not just the cancer that marijuana has helped," Phillips said. While collecting signatures "we can educate the people about marijuana," he said, with a smile.
Like many small town civic organizations the Clare County Compassion Club meets in the basement of the city library on certain Saturday afternoons. The town is half again as large as Harrison with a population of 3,118. The number of signatures required to place a question on a ballot in Michigan is 5% of the registered voters in a city, meaning 80 residents of Harrison and 125 residents of Clare need to approve the measure before it can appear on each city's ballot in November's general election.
The effort to collect signatures has taken on a small-town flair: community organizers are finding retail partners who cater to city residents and can gather signatures at their stores, plus a bowling event in the area has been discussed.
Clare and Harrison may be small towns but they have some big city problems. "We want to get cops to work on the hard crimes and leave marijuana alone, because we have a real problem with meth here in Harrison," Herbers explained.
The Harrison and Clare signature gathering campaigns are being coordinated by Jamie Lowell of Ypsilanti's 3rd Coast Compassion Center, with the guidance of the Safer Michigan Coalition. 3rd Coast was the first dispensary operating east of the Mississippi River in the United States; despite not having a statewide law allowing safe access centers, Ypsilanti has licensed and annually inspected the Center (and five others) since 2010. 3rd Coast has been in operation since early 2009.
"Activists get inspired by the activity they've seen over the last few years," Lowell said. That activity includes 14 local ballot initiatives to relax marijuana laws attempted in the last decade; every time the voters in Michigan have been given that choice they have said 'YES'.
Safermichigan Coalition leader Charles Ream agrees that small towns are very much in play for this type of activism. "I attribute that to support for legalized marijuana being over 50% in America now, we have fine local leaders and we've done all the big cities already." Of the top seven most populous cities in Michigan, five have already adopted pro-marijuana ordinances. Those cities are Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint and Ann Arbor.
Lowell calls the 14 local ballot initiatives in 2014, "Filling in the state." In the past, local proposals in tiny towns were discouraged because there was a perception that the measures would fail for lack of support- not so in 2014 Michigan. "Now we go to where the people are willing to do it," he explained.
"We are not afraid of any demographic," Ream stated.