Higher Ground: May you live in interesting times

Mar 30, 2016 at 1:00 am

March 31 marks a new day in Detroit for medical marijuana. It's the last day for Medical Marijuana Caregiver Centers to apply for a license to operate in the city.

Before this, provisioning centers multiplied in a gray area of the law where they weren't exactly legal but were tolerated. That's an outgrowth of how Michigan's medical marijuana law played out when the courts ruled patients can have marijuana but didn't allow for venues to sell it. It's right in line with the weird machinations prohibitionists have always gone through to keep people away from the weed.

The original 1937 Tax Stamp Act that put marijuana outside the law did not make marijuana illegal. It simply said that you couldn't sell it without a federal tax stamp. And the feds weren't handing out any tax stamps for marijuana. The same thing goes for hemp (marijuana's industrial cousin) growing in many states. The state will allow farmers to grow hemp if they can get a federal license to grow it. Good luck with that.

If you've been following Michael Jackman's stories about the Hamtramck City Council and marijuana, you know Hamtown has no law against marijuana possession, but the baggie it's carried in is illegal paraphernalia. It can really get weird.

But let's get back to Detroit. I know some lawyers have been advising southeast Michigan clients who want to open up provisioning centers that Detroit, or at least Wayne County, is the place to do it in order to encounter fewer legal problems. Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County are probably even better, but the big population is in Wayne. Part of that reasoning comes from the bad attitude of Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper and Sheriff Michael Bouchard toward the plant (not to mention Genesee County). It was deemed safer to cross Eight Mile Road to Wayne County.

The high-profile busts and prosecutions in Oakland County shortly after the medical law passed put the quash on marijuana storefronts there. This led to a whole lot of marijuana storefronts in Detroit, which alarmed a lot of citizens who believe the road to Hell is paved with hempcrete.

So now we have a new law in Detroit, which, as far as I can tell, is aimed at shutting down the burgeoning industry. The new law says a Caregiver Center cannot be within 1,000 feet (a little bit longer than a football field) of another center, a liquor store, a church, a school, a day care center, or a park. Good luck finding a spot to do business in Detroit.

"It's not fair; it's intended to shut everybody down," says Jay, the manager at an eastside provisioning center named Fuego on Eight Mile. "It's like they said you can't be near a curb and there are curbs everywhere."

Jay was the only person that I called at a facility who would even talk to me. Most folks are afraid to call attention to themselves in the media. So I went online to the Medical Marihuana Caregiver Center Eligibility Map and clicked on numerous locations that I thought were within eligible zones. Every time I clicked, it came up with "location ineligible."

So what's going to happen April 1? Will there be massive raids and arrests? Will there be a parade of people leaving town, as in 1917 when New Orleans' legendary Storyville red light district was shut down? Probably not, but the city will take steps.

"I think they'll probably send letters at a minimum," says attorney Matt Abel, of Detroit's Cannabis Counsel legal office. "Hopefully they'll just send letters and give places notices to close, the ones that have not filed, and even ones that did file that are in districts which will not be licensable."

There are reportedly about 200 storefronts in Detroit and it's expected that the city will license a much smaller number. Early in the month, there was a report that 79 businesses applied for licenses. I called up the zoning office last week to find out how many had applied since then. The person who answered the phone told me employees were told not to talk to the press. I was then transferred to another office, which transferred me to another office, which then transferred me to somebody's voicemail. I left a message but nobody returned my call.

Another complicating factor is that city records are simply not up to date, and locations that may show up as ineligible on the map are not. Jay tells me a former day care center nearby could be rendering Fuego ineligible, but the location had been under renovation to turn it into a marijuana dispensary. There are parks in Detroit that have essentially been abandoned by the city and have no playground equipment, and there are empty school buildings that are never going to be used again. When they show up on a map, they render a location ineligible.

"The zoning is messed up," says Jay. "If they deny you, you can't even appeal. It's cut and dry."

Even a liquor store is allowed to appeal a licensing issue. One would think that a business would at least have the chance to point out that the "school building" nearby has been empty for years.

And the folks who claim that their facilities are private clubs and not subject to the Caregiver Centers law may find that the fine lines they are trying to draw have been erased.

"If they're a private club, they're not going to be able to advertise," says Abel. "If they claim they are a private club, then they have to act like a private club."

That would mean patients can medicate at the location but no sales would be allowed.

There will be plenty more to come on this. The ordinance takes a hard line on the five-patients-to-one-caregiver state rule, so I'm not sure how any kind of facility will be set up and how the city will oversee them. I'm hearing rumblings about lawsuits from folks who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into their businesses, but nothing has been filed yet.

It seems that we will indeed be cursed with interesting times on the marijuana front in the city of Detroit.

The Empire Strikes Back could well be the theme for marijuana today. Detroit is not the only place where prohibitionists are raising their heads. Up north, some 12 medical marijuana facilities identified in Otsego and Oscoda County investigations were raided in one week. Two Gaylord men were arrested for illegal distribution, and other charges with more arrests expected to follow.

Facebook is shutting down pages from dispensaries marketing their products, even in legal marijuana states. NBC News reports that Facebook shut down a dozen sites from six states. On balance, the Facebook policy against promoting marijuana sales also targets illegal gun sales.

PR.com recently refused a press release regarding the opening of Healer.com, an informational website on how to effectively use marijuana medicinally from Dr. Dustin Sulak, a respected Maine-based therapist. Instagram has recently shut down accounts from marijuana companies, and Google is limiting their content.

Hmmm, will Darth Vader soon be breathing heavily and loudly down our necks? May the force be with you.