Higher Ground: Looking ahead

Sep 16, 2015 at 1:00 am

There's good reason to pose this question. There are two petition initiatives aimed at legalizing marijuana for recreational use on the 2016 ballot — and a June poll showed state voters support legalization 56 percent to 36 percent.

Faced with what looks like an inevitable course, politicians in Lansing are discussing doing the same thing legislatively. There are four states that have already legalized recreational use; Ohio is voting on it in November, and several other states will be voting on it in 2016. Presidential elections bring out the largest crowds, and polls say that the majority of voters favor legalization. By the way, 2016 will be the first election where marijuana is an issue. Candidates will be asked about it, especially when visiting states where medical or recreational laws are in effect or on the ballot.

So it would be prudent for city leaders to consider what is involved when the weed comes to town. Technically it's already legal in Detroit. In 2012 we voted to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce by adults on private property. Of course that doesn't account for where you get it from, and that's what statewide legalization would answer. Then cannabis commerce would become a regulated business.

"It would be a good thing for Detroit," says attorney Matt Abel, executive director of Michigan NORML and a partner in Cannabis Counsel, a legal office in Detroit. "It will help stimulate the economy. With zoning and regulation, it can help employ a lot of people."

And judging from Colorado, it would be a significant business. Recreational and medical pot sales totaled $700 million in 2014. Because Michigan has a higher population, sales here would be projected at somewhere over $1 billion. A lot of that will be concentrated in population centers such as metropolitan Detroit.

In Detroit proper, we have two resources that play right into the cannabis business: empty buildings and open fields. Consider this: the Denver real estate market has boomed since recreational legalization started Jan. 1, 2014. A recent Wall Street Journal article's headline is succinct on the subject: "Marijuana Producers Gobble Up Space in Empty Buildings."

In related news, a CNN Money article titled "Denver's Housing Market Is on Fire" leads off with "Home prices have shot up by double-digits, inventory has fallen dramatically and multiple offers with bidding wars have become common. One factor driving the demand: pot. The budding industry has impacted home prices since the state legalized marijuana in 2012."

If Denver can be compared to Detroit from that perspective, it sounds positive. Don't we want commerce taking place in all those empty buildings? There are a lot of them, and Dan Gilbert can't use them all.

And what about all those empty lots? There's already a growing urban agriculture scene here. I'm not suggesting we grow commercial marijuana in open fields, but I do think industrial hemp could be grown here. Hemp growing and processing could be a boost to the local economy. Anybody who cares to check can find the tens of thousands of products that use hemp — from hemp seed oil (found in Dr. Bronner's soaps) and proteins for food supplements, to fibers for clothing and building materials. In Detroit, you could probably get two crops a year.

Here's something else to consider: Everybody has not gone Mau Mau crazy in Colorado or Washington, the two states where recreational sales are up and running. Closer to home, consider that the most marijuana-friendly city in Michigan, Ann Arbor, is seen as one of the state's best business and residential communities. The Ann Arbor Hash Bash and Monroe Street Fair attract stoners from across the country to openly smoke marijuana in public.

Marijuana might calm things down in the city. Police wouldn't have reason to harass people for an insignificant, nonviolent crime. People wouldn't be subject to the indignities of arrest and have a felony conviction following them around for life. Even if you do have a record, the marijuana industry might not look at it unkindly. When Washington state was setting up its legalization rules, having a conviction for selling marijuana did not disqualify you. In a sense, it was looked at as experience.

And if the police don't have to chase marijuana smokers around, they'll have more time to do the other things police do to make a community nice for people. Maybe it will lower the response time for 911 calls. The cost of processing and housing offenders will go down too.

Employment in the marijuana economy ranges across an amazing array of needs. "Bud tending" is a new skill that comes with the industry, but there are lots of traditional things such as legal, carpentry, electrical, security, packaging, analysis labs, retail clerks, software development. There are grow stores and dispensaries. Soon there will be advertising accounts and market analysts.

Judging from the slew of websites and magazines on the subject, marijuana media is a growing field. Writing about marijuana has become one of my specialties.

However, as much as you might want to be a weed critic, those jobs will be as rare as wine critic. Although when the High Times Cannabis Cup rolls around, they take on a bunch of folks to judge entries in its contests.

There's a lot of economic impact to marijuana legalization. There are those who will argue that there is a social cost that we don't want to pay. I'd argue that the War on Drugs has had a catastrophic social cost that will never be justified.

But moving ahead with legalization and building it into the economy will help put that in our rearview mirrors.

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