Detroit chooses to overrule the people and fight pot proposals 

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The city of Detroit has played coy on the issues of Proposals A and B, which voters approved in November, but on Friday struck a decisive blow against them — and liberal zoning for marijuana businesses — in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Chief Judge Robert Colombo, who in September ruled against the city and forced the proposals onto the ballot, struck down Proposal B and parts of Proposal A in a surprising end-of-the-day move.

The decision was surprising in part because, during an 8:30 a.m. proceeding, Colombo dismissed lawsuits against the proposals brought by VK Real Estate Holdings III LLC, and by Detroiters Marcus Cummings and Deborah Omokehinde, declaring they had no standing to file suit. During that hearing, however, the city of Detroit, which was a defendant in the suits, chose to cross-file and join the opposition. Colombo instructed city representatives to have their complaint in by the end of the day.

Apparently that's all that was necessary to kill the votes that passed both proposals with about 60 percent of the vote. Pretty much all that's left is opting the city into the state's new medical marijuana licensing system. On the other hand, all the stuff about how far a facility has to be from churches, parks, schools, etc., goes back to the city standards of 1,000 feet, and the stuff bypassing the Board of Zoning Appeals is all gone.

All this happened because the city chose to fight the proposals. Before the election Detroit counsel Butch Hollowell said the city was neutral on the proposals and would abide by the will of the people. On Friday the city changed from defendant to plaintiff to give standing to the suits and ultimately torpedo the proposals.

So much for the will of the people.

This is a complicated and charged subject. It will continue to be that way for a long time due to the emotions and fears surrounding marijuana. The majority of voters clearly support a more liberal system of dispensing marijuana. Despite that 60 percent support, a look at voting precincts reveals some of the dynamics in the city. According to information from Lansing-based C-Systems Technology Group, Proposal A lost in 14 precincts and Proposal B lost in 22 out of the 490 voting precincts in Detroit.

The biggest cluster of precincts that voted against the proposals are in City Councilman James Tate's district, which is where the anti-marijuana group Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition started off in reaction to the proliferation of dispensaries on Eight Mile Road. That group got the ball rolling that eventually led to Friday's hearing in Circuit Court.

The first thing Colombo did was admonish litigants for their letter-writing campaigns to his court. This has been a MCCAC tactic from their start.

"I am sure citizens who wrote those letters do not understand how inappropriate that is," Colombo said. He went on to say, "I decide a case based upon the law," and opined that when those decisions are made based on "personal preferences, we've lost it all."

Then things seemed to go really well for the Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform, the group that put together the initiative for the proposals and the defendant in the lawsuit along with the city of Detroit. Colombo told both sets of plaintiffs, VK Real Estate Holdings III LLC, and the MDCAC's Marcus Cummings and Deborah Omokehinde, that they lacked standing to bring their suits. That's when the city of Detroit chose to cross-complain and join the other side against the proposals.

Colombo indicated that it would be about two more weeks before he ruled on the new filing. And yet by the end of the day the city paperwork was in, and Colombo ruled against most of what was in the proposals. His ruling was based on the precedent established in Korash v. Livonia, a case decided by the Michigan Supreme Court that a zoning ordinance can't be enacted by a petition initiative.

This mostly leaves us where we were with the strict, out-of-sight zoning system which limits where a marijuana business can locate. This is further complicated by the 180-day moratorium on new licenses for marijuana businesses passed by the City Council last week.

It's another tap of the brakes on developing the marijuana industry in Detroit. The number of caregiver centers allowed in Detroit is capped at 62 for the moment, as that's how many facilities already have permission to operate from the city and are in the process of applying for state licensing — which means it's possible the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs could whittle the number even lower.

The one positive out of Colombo's ruling is Detroit opting in to the state licensing system. That's because there are five classes of marijuana businesses allowed in that system — growers, transporters, processors, testing facilities, and sellers. At this point, the city has only allowed for retail sales outlets. Colombo's ruling opens the door for other businesses in the city. Of course none of those other businesses can be licensed until the moratorium ends.

There is plenty for the city to do on this, although it is clearly antagonistic toward the marijuana industry, the industry is moving forward, and the ruffled feathers caused by the proposals will not help. There was an undertone of "who's in charge here" through the arc of the proposals getting on the ballot and passing.

There were also, true or not, charges about "those people from the suburbs coming into the city and trying to impose their will on us." That was fueled by the proliferation of establishments on Eight Mile and a history of suburbanites using Detroit as their sin city (strip clubs on Eight Mile) and retiring to their safe homes in the suburbs.

All that talk was bandied about by angry citizens at a City Planning Commission meeting shortly after the November election. And it was echoed in the hallways of the courtroom on Friday.

There's a lot of work to do, a lot of smoothing over, and probably a lot of fights to come.

Tate is supposedly working on a new ordinance but he's not talking details. Ostensibly it will address whatever other classes of business the city will or will not allow.

In the meantime, the opportunities for Detroiters and the city to capitalize on the new state system lessen each day a grower or processor or testing facility owner decides to locate in a more welcoming community instead of waiting to see what is going to happen in Detroit.

Little was settled, but when it comes to marijuana in Detroit, we know who's in charge this week.

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