Navigating Michigan’s changing marijuana laws

Trimming bud by hand has to be the most tedious, time-consuming task when it comes to processing marijuana. Snipping off the leaves one by one to give full exposure to the cannabinoid-rich flower's crystal-covered center is slow, and causes eye strain, hand cramps, and back aches. It's ultimately rewarding but not something a lot of folks would volunteer to do. Most buds I see when I'm out and about these days look as though they were machine trimmed.

"We have to get to the point where I can afford the machine," says Mark Snipes, proprietor of West Coast Meds on Lyndon west of Livernois.

Snipes was hand trimming bud when I went by to visit last week. It seems an apt image for the bootstraps, family-run caregiver center.

It's a modest, but expanding, operation. Right now, there is a lot of work going on in the back of the building. Based on the work in progress that I saw there, buying a trimmer is just one item on a long list of needs. In the back of the building there are newly framed rooms with the wood still exposed. Obviously wiring is still to come, not to mention drywall, and plenty more. All the rooms are being framed up so that each caregiver can have his or her own individual grow space, Snipes says.

It's all part of a careful, eyes-on-the-law approach to building a medical marijuana business.

Last week the marijuana news seemed to be all about the city of Detroit shutting down 167 dispensaries, but West Coast Meds wasn't one of them. And Snipes is hoping he won't run into that problem as he works his way through the city licensing process. Although the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act has been the law since 2008, and Detroit became the location for the vast majority of southeast Michigan's dispensaries, Snipes wasn't among those who jumped in early.

It may have been fortuitous timing. There were reportedly near 300 marijuana storefronts in the city when in 2015 alarmed citizens groups began pushing Detroit City council to set some rules for where and how they operated. The city had been waiting to see what the state was going to do, which turned out to be not much until last year.

In the meantime, Detroit rolled out a pretty tough set of rules that seemed aimed at eliminating most medical marijuana outlets. Medical marijuana caregiver centers had to be at least 1,000 feet from schools, churches, daycare centers, parks, liquor stores, and any other medical marijuana caregiver center. In Detroit that means hardly anywhere that people actually do anything. It seemed a law to put them out of sight, and hopefully out of mind.

"We were getting ready to put a deposit on a building on Seven Mile the day the zoning rules came out," says Snipes. "Seven Mile and Eight Mile were flooded with them (dispensaries). We almost made the mistake of getting one on Seven Mile."

At that point, with at least some guidance in hand, he located a property on Lyndon in a restricted industrial district (m2 zone) and bought it. Then Snipes, who once sold used tires, entered the marijuana business.

"I actually took a leap of faith and jumped into this," Snipes says.

The family went all-in on the enterprise. Snipes says his wife has a master's degree in business, and a couple of sons in their 20s have degrees in criminal justice and accounting, and a daughter is studying business. That said, I've got the sense that all of them take their turn at the seemingly endless, boring task of trimming buds.

At the beginning, when Snipes called to tell his mother he was going into the marijuana business she was afraid he would go to jail. When he told her the kids were part of the business she yelled, "Hell no," and hung up on him.

Fear and denial of medical marijuana is a common response to the new atmosphere from people who have lived their lives with prohibition. That's just one of many obstacles to contend with as the new economic sector flowers. Snipes sees this as his chance to move his family forward economically.

"We're in this business to stay," he says. "Whatever we need to do to be in business we'll get it done. This can change our whole family. As a black man, poverty has been our lineage. This is our opportunity to change that."

But not without some struggle. Snipes says that when they first opened, some days they barely made $50. That's not going to pay the mortgage on the building — let alone pay salaries. West Coast Meds is just now starting to cover costs and step up financially.

Snipes has resisted entreaties to take investments from people "with briefcases" who have approached him. As the city works its way through shutting down numerous locations, the West Coast Meds spot is looking better and better.

"I've seen a lot of people put $100,000 or $200,000 into a place and get shut down," Snipes says. "The city is willing to work with you if you get the right zoning."

So Snipes is working with the city and reports a good relationship with police who patrol the area. He still has a few hurdles to contend with, such as parking space. When a hearing comes up on that he has letters from a couple of nearby businesses saying that he can use their lots. Not to mention the fact that there is plenty of street parking available. There's not a lot going on in that stretch of Lyndon.

That's OK for now. Snipes doesn't want to advertise until all the city certifications are complete. And he's also got an eye on the rules enacted by the state legislature last year. Public Act 281, the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, set up rules for the licensing, growing, transporting, and provisioning of marijuana. Gov. Rick Snyder just appointed the regulatory board called for in PA 281 in late May so it'll be a while before that gets rolling. But when the system is set up, the law calls for three classes of grower licenses allowing cultivation of 500, 1,000, or 1,500 plants.

"We're going for 1,500," says Snipes, who hopes to buy the adjacent property to house his hopefully growing business.

Snipes' plan is to eventually grow, process, and sell medical marijuana in one facility. That's a big dream, one that wasn't legally possible even one year ago. That's how quickly things are changing. And if the referendum on legalizing recreational marijuana in Michigan is successful, well that just adds more possibilities to the dream.

While the city looks like it has tried to put obstacles in the path of the marijuana sector, Snipes is a guy who took it in stride and set out to comply with the rules. There's something to be said for that. West Coast Meds is not out on a well-traveled thoroughfare, but people are finding their way there.