FLINT- Tuesday's Primary elections in Michigan were a success story for the medical marijuana advocates who were running, and a horror story for those who've made their career out of prosecuting the state's sick and injured.
Notorious Gaylord-area Prosecutor Mike Rola, who authorized massive raids against medical marijuana businesses on multiple occasions, was defeated. Lapeer County Prosecutor Tim Turkelson, whose office was so biased against a medical marijuana patient they were taken off the case by a local judge, also lost. Pro-pot candidates Bob Townsend and Eric Gunnels won their primary elections.
Michigan elections are undeniably, inextricably, forever changed by the introduction of a strong medical marijuana citizen community.
"Many of us have come to the conclusion that cannabis law represents something in need of a more sensible approach," said Jamie Lowell of MILegalize and Ypsilanti's 3rd Coast Dispensary. "We have not had the type of leaders we would look to in the past- and now, we have more sane choices."
Genesee County is known as a bastion of medical marijuana freedom. The city of Flint licenses medical marijuana distribution centers. The Green Triangle, in nearby Thetford Township, hosts a growing number of businesses in the patient support industry. Cities like Davison and Montrose have distribution centers; Burton and Richfield Township have long-standing relationships with businesses and non-profits centered around medical marijuana, too.
Against this backdrop of permissive tolerance, residents like myself saw a dramatic battle play out during the primary election campaign.
In the race for Genesee County Sheriff, incumbent Robert Pickell was victorious over his challenger, Dan Allen, himself a police chief from a small community in the county. That race saw fur fly as each attacked the other over political issues and personal values.
In a series of mailers and television ads, a super PAC supporting Allen took shots at the Sheriff's retirement fund, the nature of his employees, sexual harassment lawsuits and financial mismanagement of the Sheriff's Office.
The only thing Allen's supporters never mentioned is Pickell's tolerance of the medical marijuana industry in Genesee County.
That issue would have been a non-starter, and would have represented an unpopular position with voters, according to my interviews with County figures and leaders. Attacking a person for their medical marijuana stance seems to have been discarded as a policy. This is an evolution of thought in Genesee County, and in the state itself.
Although Pickell has never made supportive statements toward the industry, his refusal to pursue or charge with crimes the many distribution centers in the county was a factor in his primary election win. If Allen had made strong statements endorsing the medical marijuana industry, he probably would have won.
Other candidates who have strongly advocated for medical marijuana issues were victorious in their contests.
Thetford Township residents gave current Trustee Eric Gunnels their strong support, voting him a very close second out of ten candidates vying for four positions as Trustee. Thetford is home to a host of patient services industry businesses, but that industry had lacked a voice in local government until Gunnels ran for office four years ago.
Since then, Gunnels has been that advocate locals had been asking for. Gunnels led the fight to de-fund the local narcotics raid team during the Thetford budgetary debate, taking a position opposite that of the Township Supervisor and Police Chief. His re-election is a certain sign that Township residents are happy with his message, and that they want his advocacy on the Board to continue.
"I am deeply honoed to be re-elected to the Board of Trustees," Gunnels told TCC. "During the campaign, I asked everyone if I had disappointed them in any way. Nobody complained," he said, with pride. "The fact that I had overwhelming support shows me that my community likes the way I make decisions."
Another cannabis community supporter, Theo Gantos, was not successful in his first effort to join the Thetford Township Board as a Trustee. Since there are no Republican candidates for the positions, this primary election was the only significant balloting for these Trustee positions.
On the west side of the state, physician Dr. Robert Townsend beat his primary election foe and will advance to the November General Election. Dr. Townsend is well-known as a doctor who, as a part of his medical practice, certifies the sick for medical marijuana use.
"I won my primary 60/40 and will be facing off against a DeVos backed former Florida Cop. I need the full support of the medical marijuana community if you prefer me over a cop that would rather arrest folks for pot than learn about it," said Townsend.
When you lead or authorize raids against sick people, the elderly and military veterans, you are bound to run afoul of the will of the voters. That's exactly what happened with two Prosecutors with very public profiles who pursued medical marijuana patients and businesses with raids and criminal charges.
Prosecutor Mike Rola sent patient Al Witt to prison for running a medical marijuana dispensary; Witt is out of jail, and Rola is out of a job.
Gaylord is a northern Michigan community where medical marijuana distribution centers flourished for years. Seemingly without provocation, and using warrants issued and authorized by Rola's office, the local narcotics enforcement teams took down nearly a dozen centers in a single day with raids and seizures of cash, cannabis and cars.
Morrow's center was one of those raided. The time waiting for charges to be issued, and the legal battle after, spanned months. Morrow's conviction resulted in a short prison stay; during those months of waiting, advocates successfully completed a petition drive to authorize medical marijuana centers in Gaylord. The city's leaders decided to adopt the measure, instead of letting the voters weigh in.
Shortly after, Rola authorized a second wave of raids on the reopened Centers. Advocates were furious, and the local presses went crazy. As this story of overreach against the ill and injured is the biggest negative pinned on Rola's reputation, it seems reasonable to tie it to his election loss.
Rola's defeat in the primary election was a rarity- an incumbent loses to an unknown challenger- but it wasn't the only story of comeuppance delivered by citizens during Tuesday's vote.
Lapeer County is next to Genesee County on the map, but its leadership in the Sheriff Department couldn't be more distant from Pickell's permissive attitude.
A particular Deputy Sheriff has waged a continuous vendetta against medical marijuana in the County, and the efforts have been supported by the Prosecutor's Office under varying administrations. In particular this Deputy has an obsession with a female medical marijuana patient and continues to harass her with raids and encounters, which date back to 2010 and as recent as last month.
The current Lapeer County Prosecutor is Tim Turkelson, who was once a lawyer for this young woman. During that time he made public statements about the Deputy's soiled reputation and tendency to lie on search warrants. Once in office, now-Prosecutor Turkelson continued to issue those warrants against the medical marijuana patient, even knowing the Deputy to be dishonest. The patient's attorney, Komorn Law, successfully petitioned the Court to have Turkelson removed from the criminal proceedings against the patient.
The judge removed Turkelson and the Attorney General's office assigned a prosecuting team from a neighboring county to handle her case. Once the new team entered the mix the charges against the patient were quickly dropped, as the case was too weak to prosecute.
Turkelson's bias and failure was widely covered by media sources serving County residents. As with Rola, it is obvious that the unjust prosecutions against medical marijuana patients contributed to the demise of the Prosecutors involved.
Oh, and the Sheriff that authorized that Deputy to engage in all those anti-patient raids? The guy that had been in his post since the mid-1980's? Sheriff Ron Kalanquin, another incumbent, was defeated in Tuesday's primary election as well. The two tools of authority involved in prosecuting medical marijuana cases in Lapeer County were dismissed from their current positions by the voters of Lapeer County.
"Candidates that oppose the marijuana law reform efforts which are already in motion in the state are out of touch with current citizen attitudes. This is a popular issue as indicated by many polls and surveys- as well as this current election," Lowell said.