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Michigan AG Dana Nessel: A Q&A On the Campaign Trail

As a part of my "Clearing The Smoke" blog, I had the privilege of sit down with Michigan AG Dana Nessel during her run for the Attorney General seat in the 2018 election, where we discussed her views on the, then upcoming vote on the Michigan Regulation of Taxation of Marijuana Act.

Original interview: June 15, 2018

By Samantha Smith

As I pull into the driveway of medical marijuana activist Tim Beck, I start to wonder what kind of night I’m in for. Beck and his wife were holding a campaign meet and greet event for Michigan Democratic nominee for Attorney General, Dana Nessel. I have interviewed plenty of local politicians and various activists in the past but never at a private event and for the first time in a long time, I was actually nervous about this interview.

During the event, Nessel mingled with attendees, made small talk, answered questions, and later gave a speech to the room addressing issues such as fracking, social security, reproductive rights, health care, infrastructure, and so on but one thing that she went into detail about that many past candidates in her position have not, was her view on cannabis. Not only did she say that she was for legalization across the state of Michigan but also, recreational legalization across the country.

I knew that Nessel was a graduate from the University of Michigan, had earned a degree from Wayne State University Law School, and had 25 years of experience as a prosecutor, representing clients involved in civil rights, domestic violence, gender, and sexual orientation discrimination and criminal cases before turning to politics but her support of legalization still caught me off guard. It’s not every day you hear someone in her position talk so openly about a subject that to some, is still controversial.

Beck, who is also Nessel’s Policy Adviser on cannabis policy reform issues, mentioned that Nessel is currently the only candidate that will be on the Michigan ballot this November who is in full support of legalizing cannabis. Many of her opponents including current Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, are still against it, have an on-record history of viewing cannabis as a dangerous drug, or are just now coming to the realization about how cannabis can help people. After her address was over, I sat down with Nessel, one-on-one to discuss her personal thoughts on cannabis.

Samantha Smith: Why are you for the legalization of cannabis?

Dana Nessel: “I’ve spent half of my career as a prosecutor and I’ve spent the other half standing up for civil rights so I’ve seen both sides of this issue. I’ve seen so many people who have been terribly hurt by the war on marijuana and I think we need to identify how this can help people. For consenting adults, I have a hard time understanding how consuming marijuana is worse than consuming alcohol. I’ve never truly understood why marijuana was illegal in the first place and 25 years of criminal practice has not helped to enlighten me on the issue.”

SS: And you are for legalizing marijuana recreationally, correct?

DN: “I strongly support the legalization of recreational marijuana. It would be a fantastic action for any state to take and it should be taken off the schedule I drug list. “

SS: Do you believe that there is potential for Michigan to legalize cannabis recreationally this November?

DN: “Yes, but if it does go recreational I believe we need to come up with a good system to determine when people are driving under the influence and I believe strongly that we shouldn’t be selling to people under the age of 21.”

SS: How do you think the legalization of cannabis will help the state of Michigan?

DN: “Via the ballot proposal, I think it is going to be tremendous for us in terms of making money for the schools, fixing roads, treating veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and so on. There are so many areas that this ballot proposal will account for and I know other states are seeing millions and millions of dollars that are being brought into the state treasury for many different things, based on the fact that it’s been legalized, properly regulated, and properly taxed. I also see ways that it’s helping people in our state.”

SS: How have you seen cannabis help people in terms of treatment?

DN: “I’ve really seen a decline in opioid addiction in areas where marijuana has been legalized recreationally and I think we could see the same thing happen here. If you talk about a drug or product that has ripped our state apart, it has been the opioid epidemic. I have seen certain instances where marijuana can be used successfully to wean people off opioids so I think it’s a real positive in that regard. I also think that anytime that you are no longer wasting state tax dollars to incarcerate people who aren’t doing anything to hurt anyone, I think that is a boon to the state not only financially, but from a humanitarian perspective as well.”

SS: Do you know anyone personally who uses marijuana as a treatment for a certain illness?

DN: “I know so many people who use marijuana to manage their chronic pain conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and so many chronic conditions. In some cases, their lives are destroyed by their condition because they have to take more and more opioids to manage the pain. And then when the doctors can’t prescribe them what they need, they turn to things like heroin. It’s crazy to me that we scare people into thinking that they could be arrested for treating their arthritis. That’s tragic to me and I see it all around the state.”

SS: Have people expressed their concerns to you about what could happen if they don’t have access to legal cannabis?

DN: “Yes, and it’s mostly senior citizens. You have senior citizens that are using medical marijuana as a treatment for their chronic pain and you have full counties where dispensaries have been shut down by their local sheriffs. These seniors are crying because they don’t know where they’re going to get their medicine and they’re terrified of purchasing it on the black market. They’re afraid they’re going to get in trouble and go to jail or prison when most of them have never been in legal trouble, a day in their life. But now they have to worry about seeking out the medicine they need? This disgusts me, it terrifies me and it makes me determined to not let this happen across the state of Michigan.”

SS: In your 25 years of legal experience, have you ever represented a client that faced a cannabis possession charge and only a cannabis possession charge?

DN: “Oh yes, so many. I’ve seen a lot of people whose lives have been upended because of these types of persecutions.”

SS: Can you give an example of this?

DN: “I had a client who was a junior at the University of Michigan in the engineering program. He had a full-ride scholarship with a 4.0 GPA. He was back home during winter break and got caught with a couple of joints on him and was prosecuted for simple possession. The judge gave him a 74-11 sentence so he didn’t go to jail but the terms of his probation were so onerous. He had to test very frequently and had to go to so many different drug treatment programs for a simple possession charge that the only way he could comply with his probation was to drop out of school so he lost his scholarship. This kid, who had the brightest future imaginable ends up losing his scholarship, dropping out of school and none of it had to do with marijuana use, but with his marijuana conviction.”

SS: Wow, that’s terrible. At any point, did you try to convince the judge to let up on this student’s conviction?

DN: “I remember asking the judge if he could let up on his conviction and some of his probationary conditions. The judge pointed at me and said ‘see what has happened here? Marijuana has ruined his life.’ I told the judge that marijuana didn’t ruin his life, he was doing just fine. I said you ruined his life. The justice system ruined his life. Don’t we have better things to do than to go after kids like this?”

SS: Do you know if your former client ever went back to school?

DN: “I’m not sure but I think about these simple possession charges and not only how it affects your life while you’re in the criminal justice system but afterward as well. These charges will always be on your record. Simple possession charges can change your whole life. It affects where you live and it changes employment opportunities. This is hurting more people than it’s helping and we need to move on from this.”

SS: The Michigan Information and Research Service (MIRS) recently published an article about how you had more than 2,000 grassroots supporters show up to the polls on Election Day, which many believed resulted in your victory. The article also suggested that the only reason why many of your supporters showed up was that you are in full support of marijuana legalization whereas your opponent, Patrick Miles, has a record of not supporting legalization. And while he is coming around to the idea, he spoke very little about it during his campaign. Do you believe that what MIRS published about that day at the polls is true?

DN: “I think there were a lot of things that appealed to people about my candidacy. Certainly, I think my open and honest position about legalization was important to people and of course, I got support from the cannabis community and I was grateful for it. I think the ironic thing was when I won and was standing at the podium, accepting the nomination for the democratic party, I had a member of the Open 07 who was up there with me. It turns out he was a person who was prosecuted under federal law for being a caregiver even though he was compliant under state law. He was prosecuted by Pat Miles so I think that was why there was some contrast behind the support that I was getting versus what Pat miles was getting, because of my views on marijuana. I think there were many reasons why I won and why I was able to engage people from all around the state so I think it’s unfair to say it was just that reason.”

SS: So, you did read the article? What did you think about it?

DN: “Yes I did, when the article said that I would never prosecute a marijuana case, that’s a mischaracterization. Certainly, you have situations where you have to prosecute people if they aren’t compliant with the law. I think they made that seem like a generalization. but I think I made it very clear that I’m for legalization and I don’t want to prioritize marijuana prosecutions. I’m not going to take the position that Schuette or that some of my Republican opponents have taken.”

SS: What are some other reasons why you think people supported your candidacy?

DN: “I think people liked my candidacy for a lot of different reasons. I care about supporting teachers throughout the state and I had environmentalists who cared about my position on shutting down line 5. I was also running against a corporate attorney and I had people who liked the fact that I wasn’t taking corporate handouts.”

SS: If you do win Attorney General, what would be the top five things you would want to see change during your time in office?

DN: “I definitely want to see a greater emphasis on the protection of our waterways and water resources. I think it’s very important that everyone has access to clean water and that we have access to affordable health care. I also think it’s important that we create the most robust consumer protection bureau. We have to protect our seniors that no longer get the care that they deserve and require and I would like to diminish political corruption. I want to bring back elements of integrity that we don’t see anymore in office.”

SS: What message do you have for people who want to see marijuana legalized this year?

DN: “Even if they don’t consider themselves a democrat, even if people don’t agree with me on every position that I take, this is a year where people support the legalization of marijuana or support the ability to use marijuana. Whether it be medically or recreationally, they need to get registered and come out and vote this fall. They need to vote exclusively for candidates that are completely pro-cannabis because if they don’t, the ballot proposal isn’t going to pass and it will become very hard for it to get on the ballot again. This is their one time to get it passed.”

“Secondly, if you put someone in the position of Attorney General, they have the ability to regulate and enforce the laws. If you put someone in there who doesn’t believe that marijuana should be legalized then you’re going to have someone who is going to do everything they can to circumvent the will of the people and I’ve vowed not to do that. You need people like me in office just to get us to a place where our state regulatory agencies are treating these businesses as legitimate businesses so people can start getting their licenses, paying the taxes that they need to pay and so that we have better regulations with banking issues. We need someone who is going to allow this industry to grow and in order for that to happen voters need to exclusively support pro-cannabis politicians this year, regardless of what party they’re for.”

To learn more about Dana Nessel and her campaign go to:


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