Higher Ground: Playing catch-up 

It seems that some Michigan political bodies have finally been pushed to give up their wait-and-see approach to marijuana. The wait-and-see was really more of a stall-and-demure and even an ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go-away tactic. But citizen actions have finally forced lawmakers to step up. In Detroit and Lansing legislators are addressing the fact that medical marijuana patients actually have to buy their marijuana somewhere.

In Detroit that means that the first of two sets of regulations for medical marijuana facilities was passed. It's about time; there are an estimated 148 of them, about one for each of the city's 139 square miles, and they're not clearly legal or illegal.

The ordinance requires the shops to have a city license and police background checks for its operators. It also sets up an inspection procedure and prohibits drive-thru and 24-hour operations.

That was the easy part. The second set of regulations will address zoning and set how close they can be to schools, churches, parks, and other marijuana facilities. Those are crucial issues that will show a more accurate map of the city's attitude toward this burgeoning sector. For instance, one citizens group submitted a plan that would restrict them to industrial zones, and there have been suggestions that there should be as few as seven licensed dispensaries in the city. The City Planning Commission was set to discuss those issues Thursday [Oct. 15] but there has been no news of the results.

"We've been following it very closely," says Roger Mancini, manager at the Detroit Compassion Club (DCC) on Detroit's west side. "We're in a business strip mall; it would be very, very, hard for me to believe that we can't be here. ... It's up in the air and we pretty much have to play ball if they regulate everything."

Mancini points out that the DCC is a nonprofit social club that offers massage and guided meditation in addition to marijuana. He's not sure if the language of the regulations includes places like his. Although he adds, "Regulating and taxing our industry, I'm all for it."

That's what's happening in Lansing. A three-bill package is making its way through the legislature that would, in part, levy a 3 percent tax on gross retail income at marijuana dispensaries. House Bills 4209, 4210, and 4287 do a whole lot more than levy taxes. They require state licenses for growers, processors, secure transporters, provisioning centers, and safety compliance facilities, create a five-member, governor-appointed licensing board, require product testing, requires a seed-to-sale tracking system, and allow for edibles, tinctures, and topical oils infused with cannabinoids. There are a number of other regulations, but those are the big ones.

HB 4209 sets up a three-tiered system of growers, delivery and processing facilities, sets the hiring of more state police and oversight officials at a cost of some $21 million. That probably means the already high cost of medical marijuana will probably go up. An ounce costs anywhere from $280 to $500 already, and when the fees start patients will pay the cost.

"What I wouldn't like to see is for them putting too high of a tax rate," says Mancini. "That will cause a bigger black market on the street. These provisioning centers are an alternative to the street level drug dealers. ... Our security guard will walk you to your car and watch you take off."

The push in Lansing has come in part because there are two active petition initiatives (the rumor that one of the initiatives had dropped out was wrong) working to put the question of legalizing recreational marijuana on the 2016 ballot. It seems that with the chance that things will open up even more next year the legislature has decided to finally take care of some old business and start building an infrastructure. It's only been seven years since the law was enacted.

The fact that public actions by citizen has spurred both groups to finally move shows just how laughably far behind the people that politicians are on the issue. Detroit gets a bit of a pass because Lansing should have taken the lead and many across the state have waited for that guidance. Still, when Lansing stood mute on it, Detroit should have gotten a handle on things long before there were 148 storefronts in town.

The regulations that are coming through are not perfect and reflect a mindset that is still fearful of marijuana. And certainly deals were made to get the support of reluctant legislators. For instance hiring additional state police smells of a carrot to get law enforcement – which defected at the last minute over a similar bill last year – on board. But even strong advocates such as State Reps. Mike Callton and Jeff Irwin have said the laws as they stand are about the best that could have gotten through the state house. Now they have to pass through the Senate.

Even with clear majorities of voters in support of easing restrictions, those who fear marijuana have been maintaining a stiff resistance. It's difficult to counter some 80 years of anti-marijuana propaganda and misinformation. And as these businesses establish themselves, there is still a stigma.

"We're emerging out of the shadows," says Mancini. "The uninformed person is still looking at us as a drug dealer; we're just in a storefront."

However, a storefront is a huge leap forward next to the marijuana distribution system that was in place 10 years ago. And all the hand-wringing about medical marijuana storefronts will be small potatoes next year if either of the recreational legalization initiatives is successful at next year's ballot. Marijuana has been mentioned favorably by candidates at the Republican and Democratic debates so it's coming down the pike — and that's what legislators in Detroit and Lansing are finally coming to grips with.

Larry Gabriel writes the Stir It Up and Higher Ground columns for the Detroit Metro Times and is editor of The American Cultivator.

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