MI: Many Macomb Communities Take Wait And See Approach To Medical Marijuana

Photo Credit: Gina Joseph

Although two neighboring communities have decided to “opt in” on medical marijuana licensing, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor and the rest of the City Council are in no hurry to get a new ordinance on the books.

The city’s administrators and lawyers have studied state law and drafted some rules and regulations they think would be best for the second-largest community in Macomb County.

“We don’t want to necessarily be the guinea pig. We want to see what works and what doesn’t work,” Taylor said.

“We’re not rushing it.”

The state has yet to issue any licenses for growers, processors, transporters, provisioning centers, or safety compliance centers since the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act took effect.

Signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder in September 2016, the act had an effective date of Dec. 20 of that year, but also had a built-in 360-day delay to allow the state time to put the regulatory structure in place, meaning no one could apply for a license before Dec.15, 2017. Once the state started accepting applications late last year, April 2018 was the estimated time when the first licenses would be issued.

The Medical Marihuana Act law allows municipalities to “opt in” to set regulations and derive some tax revenue from businesses that grow pot for medicinal purposes, dispense it, or both. It created five types of licenses that communities can approve: growth operations, processing, provisioning centers also known as dispensaries, safety compliance and secure transport.

Complex process

Along with establishing multiple license categories for medical marijuana facilities, the act also established a two-tiered licensing process, requires background checks and a certain amount of financial assets for the applicants, and included a provision for local community control.

Under the provision for local control, the act prohibits the state from issuing licenses to medical marijuana facilities unless local communities enact ordinances to allow them.

Relatively few communities in Michigan have done so. Of the 1,773 cities, villages, and townships in the state, only 96 have opted in to allow medical marijuana facilities as of June 15, according to the state Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation.

Mirroring other areas of the state, the majority of communities in Macomb County have not acted to allow such facilities or oppose them. Thus far, Warren, Clinton Township, Center Line and Lenox Township have opted in. Only Richmond and Shelby Township have opted out.

Of Oakland County’s 61 communities, only Walled Lake, Ferndale, Hazel Park and Orion Township have voted to allow marijuana facilities. The city of Troy, Waterford and Commerce, Holly and Rose townships have enacted ordinances banning them.

There is no deadline for municipalities to adopt authorizing ordinances.

David Harns, spokesman for the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, cites a “large learning curve” for the lengthy and detailed process leading to licensure as reason for the delay. But, he said, progress is being made and will continue.

“This is all new to everyone…we’re doing the best we can to get through all applications, and we’ve been able to find our stride recently, to get through the process,” he said.

Under the two-step licensing process, the first step for medical marijuana facilities applicants is a pre-qualifying application including a $6,000 fee, followed by the actual application for a facilities license listing the opt-in community where the proposed operations will be.

So far, the state has received 566 pre-qualification applications of which it has approved 24 and denied nine.

There are 254 applications pending for actual facilities licenses, including 108 for growers, 34 for processors, 90 for provisioning centers, eight for transporters, and five for safety compliance facilities.

According to Harns, the Medical Marihuana Licensing Board is expected to consider issuing licenses for approximately 24 pre-approved applications at its next meeting, July 12. The MMLB canceled its June meeting for a variety of reasons: one board member didn’t have enough time to prepare, another couldn’t attend. Also, the goal was to have applications ready for approval from each of the five categories, which is now the case, Harns explained.

If any or all get the OK next month, they’ll be the first for Michigan.

In Warren, the city has received 127 applications for medical marijuana licenses, with more than half in commercial zones and 60 in residential areas.

“I think we’re going to get a lot more,” Mayor James Fouts said Friday.

City officials have stopped accepting more applications until all qualified employees in the Building Division are fully trained in processing them, he said.

The Warren Council passed an ordinance in April that requires medical marijuana businesses and facilities to be located at least 500 feet from any schools and no closer than 500 feet from government buildings including libraries; public parks and playgrounds; child care and day care centers; and places of worship.

Warren plans to limit the number of dispensaries to 10. The city may allow more than one type of license, called “stacking,” at a single location.

Fouts vetoed the measure, in part because he wanted a 500-foot buffer from any medical marijuana facility from public properties, churches and daycare centers. The mayor has emphasized he does not oppose the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. He has expressed concern about the pungent smell of marijuana, the potential for fires and explosions, and possibility of higher crime because transactions are cash-only.

The council voted 6-1 in April to override Fouts’ veto.

The proposed medical marijuana facilities licensing law in Clinton Township is under fire from officials in the Chippewa Valley and Fraser public schools districts. The township board is mulling an ordinance that would allow large-scale commercialized growing and processing operations, as well as retail sales of medical marijuana.

“This proposed ordinance has the potential for serious and harmful consequences for our students, increasing the influence of the drug in the community, further normalizing marijuana use to our students, and increasing their access to and, potentially, their use of marijuana,” Chippewa Valley Superintendent Ron Roberts said in an e-mail Thursday to families in 16,300-student district.

“If the ordinance is approved, these large-scale operations would need to be only 400 feet away from schools, playgrounds and childcare facilities. While these enterprises would be in Clinton Township, we are concerned that they will negatively affect our students in both Clinton and Macomb Townships.

“While I am sensitive to persons that are ill and use medical marijuana, there are other means to secure it. Commercialized large-scale growing, processing and retail sales in the Township are not needed to provide access to medical marijuana,” Roberts said.

Officials in the two school districts –- a portion of the Fraser Public Schools district is located in southwestern Clinton Township –- have urged residents to attend township board meetings on July 9 and July 23.

Clinton Township Supervisor Bob Cannon is among those who support a community ordinance on medical marijuana.

“I voted no on (legalizing) medical marijuana, 11 years ago,” Cannon said, adding he was of a different mindset, then. “I went to Wayne State when a lot of people who smoked marijuana were losers. I was basically ignorant of it.”

When it became clear the issue of medical marijuana was not going away, Cannon decided that his stance against it needed more support than an opinion based on one’s youthful years in college. So, he set out to find out more. He created a committee of township officials to study the topic. Their findings, along with pleas from some in his community, changed his mind.

“A number of people contacted me privately,” Cannon said.

Unlike what he imagined a decade ago, these were not college students calling, but seniors living in the community who use medical marijuana for a variety of illnesses.

“I was surprised at the demographics,” Cannon said, adding the committee also got opinions from other seniors, law enforcers, school superintendents and township residents. “I only heard from one woman who opposed it,” he said.

“I agree with (the opposition’s) stance on drugs,” Cannon said, but does not concur with their objections to medical marijuana. “Medical marijuana is here to stay,” he said.

In neighboring Sterling Heights, Mayor Taylor said he gets very few calls from residents about medical marijuana but is inundated with inquiries from the business sector. He divided the latter group to include industry insiders and cannabis lawyers wanting to know what the rules are in the city. The others are people and investors who have little knowledge of medical marijuana but foresee it as a very lucrative business opportunity, he said.

Taylor favors allowing dispensaries to become licensed and open up shop because he feels residents who receive a prescription from their physician for marijuana should not be forced to cross county borders to get it filled. However, the mayor said neither he nor the other council members appear likely to formally introduce a facilities licensing law for the city with Michigan voters slated to vote on the proposed legalization of the recreation marijuana use on the November ballot.

Voter passage of recreational use could lead to new state rules, so Sterling Heights officials seem unlikely to enact regulations on medicinal pot.

“By not opting in now is not a signal we’re opposed to it,” Taylor said.

Wait and see approach

“The key thing is the election in November. That could change everything,” Fouts said.

Of the communities that haven’t yet committed to opting in or opting out as a place where marijuana facilities will be permitted, many are taking a wait-and-see approach until voters decide about recreational use of marijuana in November, said attorney Barton Morris of the Royal Oak-based Cannabis Legal Group.

“The closer we get to November, the closer many of them are saying ‘why not wait?’ ” Morris said.

While just a few communities in Macomb and Oakland counties have given the thumbs-up to medical marijuana facilities, once they are in place it will be an improvement over what’s available locally to patients at this point, Morris added.

“Any number is more than what we have now,” he said. “Dispensaries are illegal throughout the county; only qualified caregivers can provide marijuana to patients.”

That’s why many who are qualified medical marijuana patients get their products from dispensaries in Detroit, Morris said. Operators in that city who have applied for licenses are legit for now, but come Sept. 15 –- barring an extension –- those who haven’t obtained state licensing will likely be shut down.

If that’s widespread throughout Detroit, it will have a major effect on medical marijuana patients in the suburbs, because they rely on those suppliers and have for years, Morris said. Licensing could take several months or more.

“This is the implementation of medical marijuana. It’s the way it has to go,” he said. “Every state that has or is dealing with new rules regarding marijuana has had its own set of unique issues to manage, and Michigan is no exception.”

Morris also notes that medical marijuana legalization is what he sees as “the bridge” to legalization of recreational marijuana. Eventually, issues will be resolved and the marijuana industry will be established, he said

“It’s going to happen, but it will take some time. In a few years, we will have a robust market in Michigan,” he said.

Registered caregivers –- permitted to provide cannabis to a limited number of registered patients –- are still very much in demand, Morris noted. They will continue to be, regardless of how the medical marijuana commercial industry develops and regardless of whether recreational use of marijuana is legalized.

“Lots of people are willing and able to cultivate, process and manufacture marijuana as caregivers,” he said. “That’s never going away.”

One company in Sterling Heights was created to help cannabis related businesses with the ever-growing burdens of governmental compliance and business administration.

“THC123 is an employment solutions company founded in 2017 to provide payroll, staffing, and compliance to the medical marijuana industry,” said Anthony Sabatella, president of THC123.

“Our family of companies have two decades of success providing PEO services to clients in all 50 states and we are now bringing this solution to the cannabis industry as a full plug and play HR solution for cultivation, processing, and provisioning canna businesses. We aim to destigmatize the marijuana user by implementing fair and progressive HR policies into our client’s HR handbooks to offer cannabis patients protection in the workplace but also lower employer liability.”

Editor’s note: Readers will notice the divergent spellings of the word marijuana/marihuana in this report. Macomb Daily and Associated Press style calls for the word to be spelled marijuana while federal officials in 1898 adopted the alternate spelling of marihuana and that has continued with federal, state and local governments since though that spelling was dropped from regular use in American English in the 1960s.