Higher Ground: Citizen concern grows over Detroit's dispensaries

Things are heating up in Detroit regarding the proliferation of medical marijuana storefronts in the city. Some citizens are alarmed at the number they see popping up in their neighborhoods.

"It is a hornet's nest of a topic," says City Councilmember James Tate, who represents District 1 on the west side.

Due to citizen comments at meetings in his district, Tate is willing to brave the hornets in order to try to regulate a nascent industry that no one seems to have a handle on. No one else on council seems to be addressing it. There was legislation on the table in Lansing last year (HB 4271) that would have allowed local municipalities to decide for themselves, but that was left to die when the session ended.

Many cities, including Detroit, were waiting to see what guidance came from the state before they began to move on their own. Now there is a void that has Tate gingerly walking through the hornets to see what needs to be done.

"We did a tour around the district," Tate says. "I was able to visibly see 13 alleged dispensaries inside of District 1. It was kind of alarming only because I didn't see as many a few months earlier. I got a few calls, not a waterfall of calls. I'm trying to head off problems. These issues always start with a trickle."

We'll see if that trickle turns into something bigger. Winfred Blackmon from the Schaefer 7/8 Lodge Association called a meeting of community organizations last weekend to assess a response to the growing presence of marijuana storefronts. I wasn't welcome to attend. Blackmon didn't want to say anything publicly as he builds a coalition, but did say there would be a press conference when they are organized and have a strategy. Based on what I'm hearing from others, Blackmon is hot about the dispensaries. No surprise, he's the catalyst pulling this together.

Charles Harvey, vice president of MacDowell Community Council Inc., was invited. He is concerned about the issue, but he wants to tap the mood of his neighbors.

"It's drugs right in the middle of the community, and we got a lot of young people that are acting wild around here already," says Harvey. "If people want medical marijuana in the neighborhood then we'll have it. If they don't want it then we won't have it. What I've heard so far is they don't really want it. I just have a concern about that because I've seen some effects of marijuana. We'll have to look at how we get rid of it."

Good luck. I'm sure there are plenty of places in their neighborhood that aren't stores where people can buy marijuana and no one is asking for their state certification card. The storefront businesses are visible and make easy targets.

No one seems to know exactly how many dispensaries are in Detroit, but Tate estimates that there are 180 of them. The one that seems to have kicked off concerns from Blackmon is on Seven Mile Road, not far from the Home Depot on Seven and Meyers. I drove by. The not-yet-open storefront is painted a dark green with small glass block windows in the shape of a cross. The rest of the buildings on the strip all look empty and decrepit. It seems that some economic activity on the block would be welcome, but folks are concerned about potential problems. Although the complaints are general, not specific.

"Nobody has been able to say this terrible thing happened because this terrible place was here," says Pam Weinstein, who lives in the Grandmont-Rosedale area and attended Tate's October meeting. "People are very uncomfortable with this; they're alarmed about the number of these stores. I don't think any of us that voted for medical marijuana envisioned this."

Concern is elevated and a lot of heavy hitters attended the meeting, although marijuana stores were not the only issue on the agenda. City Corporation Counsel Butch Hollowell was there, as well as Southfield-based attorney Michael Komorn (president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association), and representatives from the city land use department, Detroit police, and the National Patients Rights Association. Mostly what took place was education about the medical marijuana law and fearful venting from community members. But their fears were more general, not specific.

"I have not gotten from any police source that there is any rash of crime happening around these facilities," says Tate

One reason dispensaries locate in Detroit is that they can. Wayne and Washtenaw counties are relatively marijuana-friendly, and Oakland County is definitely not. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard was a key figure in scuttling the proposed state law that died in December.

Dispensaries or provisioning centers or compassion clubs — whatever you want to call them — seem to exist in a legal phantom zone. They're not quite legal but they're not quite illegal either. Complaints about them have bounced back and forth between the police and the Department of Building Safety with no clear jurisdiction. There is no specific city permit for a medical marijuana facility. Many businesses can get a certificate of occupancy to do retail business without having to tell the city exactly what kind of retail they intend to engage in. And even if officials want to, the city doesn't seem to be able to walk in and stop anything.

"When we take these businesses to court they just get tied up and they just stay there," says Tate. "Nothing has been shut down."

Tate's office is digging into it but he doesn't have any specific proposals yet. Many concerned folks want the locations zoned so they can't be just anywhere, citing proximity to schools, churches, and day care centers. But Tate is the only council member doing anything visible. And he was counting on the state to step up in the last session.

"Once again the legislative process has disappointed many," says attorney Matt Abel, director of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "They didn't even have the courage to vote against it; wouldn't even put it up for a vote."

It's possible that the state could act soon, but it's not probable. Some activists are considering trying to get some type of initiative question added to the spring ballot that will decide a proposed sales tax increase to fix the roads. Chances for that are slim too. It will be worked out eventually, but there's a lot that has to happen along the way.

"I understand the concerns of the community," says Komorn. "I walked away from [Tate's meeting] thinking that there needs to be a lot more education about why the War on Drugs is lost and why they should want these places. If they are regulated, you're going to want these in your community. It brings jobs — people are working, earning wages."

The fact that these are medical marijuana facilities seems to get lost. Some people see marijuana of any kind, and the alarms start going off. That seems to be a reflection of the old Reefer Madness mindset. At the same time, we don't necessarily need them on every corner. That's got to be worked out. — mt