Over the last year-and-a-half, communities in Michigan have had to make a decision: do they want medical marijuana in their town?
Niles and Buchanan are just two places that have decided to give it a try.
The towns are now waiting on the state.
Michigan began accepting applications for medical marijuana businesses on December 15th.
Until the state gives the go-ahead, local communities are trying to figure out exactly what the medical marijuana program will look like.
The city of Ann Arbor is already familiar with medical marijuana businesses.
The dispensary, Om of Medicine, opened there in 2010.
Co-founder Mark Passerini says he and his partner opened with the goal of helping people.
“For us, it’s seeing the patients being able to wean themselves off of opioids, get healthier, get better is why we do it,” said Passerini.
They run things a little differently at Om of Medicine. Patients are shown their options in a one-on-one setting.
Passerini said he wanted to create a dispensary his grandmother would feel comfortable in.
Chief Medical Officer Evangelos Litinas helps explain to patients what type of marijuana will work best for their condition.
He has a medical degree and an MBA in healthcare management from Loyola University.
“Admittedly, it’s not for everyone, like any other medication really,” said Litinas.
However, marijuana is different from other medications in that it is illegally federally.
Passerini admits they’ve been operating in a grey area.
“When we first decided to do this, my mother was very worried that we would be thrown in jail,” said Passerini.
He says over the past eight years that worry has faded.
Passerini says they’ve been welcomed in Ann Arbor. They’ve worked with the University of Michigan, and were given their own plaque on Main Street.
Ann Arbor is known for having some of the most lenient cannabis laws in the state.
For years, Passerini has seen patients from Southwest Michigan drive hours to visit his store.
“That side of the state, almost all of the west side was kind of a cannabis desert so to speak where provisioning centers weren’t really allowed,” said Passerini.
A building on Front Street in Buchanan could soon become an oasis in that desert.
Passerini has applied for a state license to open a provisioning center, more commonly known as a dispensary, there.
“It’s basically a lot of paperwork and opening up your whole life basically to show the state that you’ve been paying your taxes and that you’re not a criminal,” said Passerini.
Medical Marijuana is expanding thanks to three bills passed in Michigan in 2016.
The laws and the emergency rules released late last year create regulations for dispensaries, grow centers, and other marijuana facilities.
The laws help take medical marijuana out of the gray area, but local municipalities get to choose whether they want to participate.
That means much of the work falls on the desks of local leaders like Sanya Vitale, the community development director in Niles.
“I would say that really over the last year a substantial portion of my daily work has been on the medical marijuana program,” said Vitale.
Niles has decided to participate in the program.
Late last year, Niles City Council members conditionally approved licenses for 4 grow operations, two processing centers, and two provisioning centers.
Those businesses are expected to fill some of the buildings in the industrial park.
Between the applications and other paperwork, Vitale estimates she’s read over 30 thousand pages.
She hopes the businesses will attract people downtown and bring hundreds of new jobs, but she says the work isn’t about the tax dollars.
One analysis she read estimated that if the state made a billion dollars a year on marijuana taxes, Niles only would get around $75,000.
“This is definitely worthwhile and not because of the money,” said Vitale. “There isn’t going to be a lot of money for small communities or actually most communities in the state. We’re not looking at this being some sort of economic windfall. We’re looking at it as a medical program for our constituency.”
Cities and businesses have been doing all this work based on the state’s emergency rules that only last until June.
New state rules are expected then.
Until the state finalizes the rules and hands out the licenses, the cannabis desert remains.
“We’re just hoping this is all not for naught. We’re hoping that it’s something that we can keep moving forward,” said Passerini.
Passerini is hoping to hear back from the state sometime in April about his dispensary license.
Niles is looking at a similar timeline.
Vitale says a conservative estimate on when a store could open in Niles is this June.