Where can we get high in Michigan? 

click to enlarge With its annual Hash Bash, Ann Arbor has been at the forefront of relaxed rules on public marijuana use.

Michael Charter

With its annual Hash Bash, Ann Arbor has been at the forefront of relaxed rules on public marijuana use.

The question of where to get high has always dogged marijuana users. It's been crucial: Marijuana has been illegal for most of our lives, and nobody wanted to get caught using it. The smell of marijuana smoke is distinct and it floats around pretty freely.

Now that medical and adult-use marijuana are legal in Michigan, where to get high remains the big question.

"As it stands right now the only place you can use it is on private property," says Nick Zettell, a cofounder of MI Legalize, one of the organizations that helped bring legalization to Michigan.

How private does that property have to be is another question. That one is headed for some litigation as the war on weed continues to fight skirmishes wherever it can to contain marijuana. All the communities that have banned marijuana shops are evidence of that. By the same token, advocates of the herb continue to press the fight for their rights in court, at the ballot box, and in the hearts and minds of citizens.

Ann Arbor has always been at the forefront of relaxing strictures against marijuana, and it looks like that is where adult use in some kind of social setting may be allowed in Michigan. At least that's what activist Chuck Ream hopes. He's organizing an initiative to put the question on the city ballot in 2020.

It may not come to that, however. Ann Arbor voted 78 percent in favor of Prop. 1 in November, and Ream says, "It seems both factions of city council want to do this."

They'll likely get little argument from Mayor Christopher Taylor, who told media recently, "I believe that most Ann Arborites would support a reasonable social-use policy that would accommodate non-disruptive, marijuana-based businesses. I look forward to learning more about other jurisdictions' experiences and to working with staff, my colleagues and the public to devise a set of marijuana-related authorizations and regulations that are right for our community."

Seeking social-use is pretty high on the list for users after legalization. They're facing that question everywhere recreational marijuana is legal. An Alaskan social use law was just implemented in December. Among other things, the law there says, "Marijuana and marijuana products may be sold in raw or edible form for on-site use. ... The consumption area must be separated from the rest of the facility with a security door or located in a stand-alone building."

That's one model Ream discusses. Another model would be one in which no marijuana is sold, but people could bring their own marijuana to consume in vaporizers there. That's the model that Windsor's Higher Limits Cannabis Lounge had before it closed in December due to provincial public smoking laws that changed to include vaping.

Marijuana tourism will become an issue once recreational retail stores open. If people come to Michigan in order to take advantage of legalization — and they will, just as teenagers have flocked to Ontario to drink beer — finding a private place to use marijuana will become an issue.

That may be less of an issue in the southern Lower Peninsula because Ohio is voting on legalization this year. Nothing like that is planned in Wisconsin, which abuts the Upper Peninsula. Folks up there expect tourists from Wisconsin and Minnesota to travel for the cannabis experience. Zettell says he's been up there a few times to chat with people about the potential.

"The Upper Peninsula is going to be the ideal getaway for people who are traveling to scenic areas, from Chicago and Wisconsin," says Zettell. "I think that people are really going to start flocking to places like that. There are different ideas about how this can be done. People are already exploring ideas about private clubs."

In the short term, it's going to come down to what local governments will allow. And with all the communities that are banning medical marijuana provisioning centers, it's not likely they are going to welcome recreational marijuana social clubs. Ann Arbor seems the outlier at the moment. Detroit has many people who would love a place to go, but don't expect any quick movement on that.

City Councilman James Tate, who has been upfront on marijuana issues, says, "It's been a subject of conversation. That's as far as I'm comfortable in going."

It's obviously an uncomfortable topic in Detroit, and pretty much everywhere across the state — particularly because the possibility of social clubs is provided for in the law that was passed in November. Sec. 8.2 of Prop. 1 says the state may issue licenses that "authorize the consumption of marihuana within designated areas." 

One could argue that adults who drink alcohol can go to bars, and that there should be a counterpart for marijuana. The folks who coordinated the campaign for Prop. 1 were named the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, and they pretty much mean it.

Ann Arbor's Ream isn't waiting or leaving it to chance. He's organizing a petition initiative to be ready just in case local politicians falter. Something like that would push Ann Arbor back to the cutting edge of relaxing stigmas against using the plant. That's where the city was when it first decriminalized marijuana in the 1970s and demoted punishment to a $5 fine.

It's clear that if activism doesn't continue, the pushback against marijuana will have users hiding in the shadows as they are stigmatized. The fact that it took 10 years to get the first provisioning centers licensed and open after passage of the medical marijuana law showed the need.

We've already seen that it can work in Amsterdam. It works informally in a lot of other places. I've been to places in Spain and Morocco where you can buy and use without problems. It could happen here.

Presidential pot

Marijuana has officially entered the 2020 presidential race, with Sen. Kamala Harris admitting during a recent interview on New York City's The Breakfast Club radio show that she has smoked pot.

"Half my family's from Jamaica — are you kidding me?" Harris said when asked about legalization and whether she's used marijuana. "I have, and I did inhale."

Harris, whose father is Jamaican and whose mother is from India, reminded us of President Clinton's nearly 30-year-old claim that he had puffed on marijuana joints — but did not inhale the smoke.

Sure, Bill.

"I think that gives people a lot of joy," Harris said, "and we need more joy."

Harris said she supports national legalization, which is a script flip from her public opposition to legalization in California in 2010 when she was San Francisco district attorney. She also opposed California recreational legalization in 2015. She gives no reason for her change in attitude. Maybe it's the more than 60 percent of Americans who support legalization.

In 2018 we witnessed the first gubernatorial election in which a candidate openly embraced marijuana in a victorious campaign. We might witness something similar in 2020.

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