On marijuana, Detroit City Councilmember James Tate attempts to dispense justice

Jun 27, 2018 at 1:00 am

The recent amended marijuana zoning ordinance being considered by city officials has something people on both sides of the issue can hate. For instance, the number of caregiver centers is capped at 75, which means there just are not going to be as many licenses as there used to be facilities. That is simply going to eliminate some players. And maintaining the original 1,000-feet buffer zone from schools, churches, parks, liquor stores, day care centers, and other caregiver facilities will severely limit where they can locate.

On the other side, I saw an email from an anti-marijuana activist calling to "stop the medical marijuana zoning ordinance expansion" making the rounds. This concerned citizen apparently sees opting into the state system that allows for growers, processors, transporters, and testing facilities as an expansion.

Such is the world that Detroit City Councilmember James Tate, principal sponsor of the marijuana zoning ordinance, has to maneuver. "I have people from both ends who are absolutely upset right now," he says.

As it stands, Tate is the city government's face of marijuana. Mayor Mike Duggan has not had a lot to say about it publicly, although it was his law department that challenged the voter-passed ordinances that were mostly overturned in a lawsuit. Most members of Detroit City Council have little to say on the subject. Tate says each member has several areas that they specialize in, and that the others' commentary on the subject will come when the ordinance comes before them.

So Tate's the guy who has had to weigh in on marijuana in Detroit. Doing the work in this area has been an education. He says he was surprised to find actual marijuana inside a caregiver center when he first visited one.

"There was marijuana everywhere," he says. "It was like, wow, that's what happens in here. I started reading articles, watching video reports, and talking to patients as well. We were working with patient advocates, did tours of these locations. I was really educating myself on what this really means."

Good luck if he can figure that out. The details of change are always kind of slippery, but Tate's work is trying to navigate a path through a particularly thorny issue with little precedent for guidance.

"The industry always wants more and is never satisfied," he says. "I created an ordinance that did not exist not just here but in most of the municipalities in the state of Michigan. We led the charge to legitimize an industry that has helped a number of individuals. [It was] controversial, but it has helped a number of individuals. Why are we the bad people because we created opportunity for that to exist, so people can have compassionate care? That's what I have not understood. Are you talking about opening up the floodgates? You saw what happened when there was absolutely no rules, when there was absolutely no regulation. You know yourself, you saw four or five sometimes, one corner over here, you saw one stretch there were 12 of them along the way and that is not how I want to see anything develop. I say this all the time. I don't want 12 pizza joints on one corner."

Well, there were a lot of caregiver centers out there. I don't know how many there were on any given corner but they weren't hard to find. How many will the market bear? We'll find out when the state starts handing out licenses, and presumably there will be locations in Oakland County, where provisioning centers had been totally banned. Part of the situation along Eight Mile Road was that businesses chose to open where Oakland County traffic could easily find them. Now that there is a state licensing system coming into place, there will be locations north of Eight Mile Road. So there will be some realignment in the retail sector.

But I have to admit that the first caregiver-center zoning ordinance, as restrictive as it was in the face of what had been an unregulated industry, did beat the state by about 10 months in saying there could be places where medical marijuana is sold — although neither entity has handed out a license to operate at this point.

The four other classes of business in the marijuana supply chain are not retail outlets and are a different kind of concern. Tate doesn't think it's necessary to set a number on how many of those are allowed.

"We didn't put a cap on those because that will naturally cap itself," Tate says.

It's a strange happenstance that only a few years ago Council set rules about how and where vegetables and fruit can be grown with the Detroit Urban Agriculture Ordinance. Now they're discussing where marijuana can be grown. Both have become community issues that help define Detroit today.

Tate insists that he is trying to balance the wants and needs of competing entities, but he makes no bones about it that he puts a strong emphasis on what people in the community want. Apparently people in the community want less of an in-your-face public profile, and fewer green lights.

"Then we started looking at the signage," says Tate. "It's a major issue for a lot of folks in the neighborhood. It's just the gaudy nature of the way it looks."

On top of the balancing act of variables at hand, Tate has an eye on the vote regarding recreational legalization this fall and the possibility that the initiative will pass. He thinks what he has on the table now will be easily adaptable in that case.

There are factors that he doesn't control, from anything the state does to various city departments. When it's all done, Tate says, "The ordinance I believe is the best one we can possibly pull together at this point."

Maybe that's the political reality, the art of what's possible. The only part of the ordinance that I believe is truly excessive is the 1,000-foot buffer zone. Other than that, given the volatile emotions at play, it's more or less reasonable.

It's a tough subject. And it seems that it takes someone with some backbone to see it through. I don't like everything these ordinances do, but Tate is seeing them through. Where folks in the state and nearby Oakland County approached it from a prohibitionist's zeal, Councilmember Tate is trying to make it work.

Sweet leaf

Come Oct. 17, recreational marijuana will be legal across Canada, giving the folks in the president's administration yet another reason to be pissed off at the nation north of ours. The Canadian Senate gave final passage to the bill last week, making good on a key Justin Trudeau campaign promise. Canada becomes only the second country, after Uruguay, to legalize marijuana. Hopefully some of that Canadian spirit will rub off on our country and we can celebrate something like that real soon.

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