The city has hired an outside firm in its fight against a lawsuit that could derail Lansing’s medical marijuana ordinance.
A pro-marijuana group called Let Lansing Vote sued the city in November 2017, alleging City Clerk Chris Swope improperly rejected a petition that would have forced City Council either to repeal its 2017 medical marijuana ordinance or bring the issue before voters.
In February, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo sided with Let Lansing Vote when he rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
The city filed a motion Thursday, indicating it will ask the Michigan Court of Appeals to reverse that decision.
Mary Massaron, an attorney with the Plunkett Cooney law firm, filed the latest motion on behalf of the city. The City Attorney’s office did not respond to a question about the cost of hiring that law firm. City Attorney Jim Smiertka had previously been the city’s lead attorney in the case.
In court filings, the city argues the lawsuit should be dismissed because, under the Lansing City Charter, the clerk has discretion to determine whether signatures are valid.
The clerk rejected the Let Lansing Vote petition after determining it was short the required number of signatures. Let Lansing Vote says the clerk invalidated signatures that should have been counted.
The city also argues Let Lansing Vote did not challenge the ordinance in a timely manner.
“They’re trying to avoid getting to the substance of the case because we would win on that substance,” Bob Baldori, an attorney for Let Lansing Vote said. “Were these signatures valid or not? Should they have been counted or not?”
Baldori said Let Lansing Vote will respond to the Ingham County Circuit Court order with an amended complaint to show the clerk acted in an “arbitrary” manner when he rejected some of the signatures.
The city filed a circuit court motion last week to block Swope from being deposed before Let Lansing Vote submits its amended complaint. A hearing on that motion is set for April 4.
City officials say they are continuing to enforce Lansing’s 2017 medical marijuana ordinance despite the pending lawsuit. That ordinance outlined a licensing process for marijuana businesses and capped the number of dispensary licenses at 25.
The city’s first application deadline for dispensaries, also called provisioning centers, was Dec. 15. Swope has so far rejected 18 dispensary applications.
Swope has not yet issued any licenses for dispensaries, or any other types of marijuana businesses.
The city hired ICF Inc., a consulting firm, to review its marijuana applications. The city has so far paid the firm $33,046.88 for close to 208 hours of labor, according to an invoice provided to the Lansing State Journal by the City’s Clerk’s office.
“We didn’t have that level of expertise in-house,” Chief Deputy City Clerk Brian Jackson said of the decision to hire ICF.
By using an outside firm, the city ensures greater independence in its licensing process, Jackson said.
It costs $5,000 to apply for a city license. The city will refund $2,500 if the application is denied. Business owners will eventually need both city and state medical marijuana licenses to operate legally.
As of Friday, the city had received applications for 85 dispensaries, 46 growers, 14 secure processors, one secure transporter and one safety compliance facility.
If Lansing repealed its 2017 ordinance, there would be no medical marijuana ordinance on the books until City Council voted to enact another one, according to the city attorney.
It would be unduly disruptive if a court order forced the city to meet the demands of Let Lansing Vote, the city argues.
“[A]n entire industry and the people who rely on it for their livelihood and well-being will be put in jeopardy if the city is forced to call for a referendum initiative based on invalid signatures,” attorneys wrote on the city’s behalf. Lansing’s next election would be Aug. 7, 2018.
The city further contended the lack of a legal medical marijuana industry would harm patients and foster a “black market.”
Let Lansing Vote says the city’s 2017 ordinance is too restrictive. The group submitted an ordinance proposal to City Council earlier this month, which did not include a cap on the number of dispensaries.