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Ann Arbor City Attorney Says 'Dilemma is Extreme'

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Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje says cities across Michigan still face a serious dilemma when it comes to regulating medical marijuana dispensaries – businesses that aren't mentioned in state law but nonetheless have sprouted in notable numbers.

"I have never seen an issue that's been before us where we have cities in our state that are being sued from one side for failure to act to make it more possible for these facilities to operate, and then we also have pressure from the federal government on local governments from the other side," he said toward the start of a 90-minute discussion on the topic.

"The dilemma is extreme," acknowledged City Attorney Stephen Postema. "As commentators have pointed out, municipalities are really in some ways where the rubber hits the road. This is where all of the state statutes and enforcement issues often take place."

After months of talks about how to respond to the rise of dispensaries, the Ann Arbor City Council appears close to finalizing a set of regulations. A pair of complementary licensing and zoning ordinances is scheduled to come back before council for final approval on June 20.

Council members hope to have the regulations – which have been under discussion since last summer and were tweaked again Monday night – finally completed.

"I think everybody's really, really tired of dealing with medical marijuana," said Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, who has taken a lead role on the issue and has worked with other city officials to meticulously craft the ordinances.

After the ordinances are approved, a moratorium in place since last August will be lifted and prospective dispensary owners can apply for licenses to do business in the city – though most licenses will be reserved for dispensaries that opened before the moratorium.

As currently worded, the regulations would cap the number of dispensary licenses at 20. At a meeting last month, council members decided they no longer want to have licensing regulations for cultivation facilities – places where marijuana is grown other than homes.

Briere said there'll be one more opportunity for members of the public to address the council on the subject of medical marijuana at the June 20 meeting.

The council made a number of small changes to both ordinances Monday night – what Briere called "bureaucratic improvements." Those dealt with requirements for those who apply for licenses and how the city might hold people accountable for the forms they fill out.

The only significant change, Briere said, is that dispensaries are required to keep records for 30 days for patient access and 60 days for city access.

The 30-day requirement is seen as a way of making sure patients can trace the source of any marijuana product they received should they become ill afterward.

"The idea for the city to have access to the information on the relationship between dispensaries and the cultivation source," Briere added, "was so the city could ascertain that dispensaries are actually accurately keeping records and able to provide a source for their marijuana."

Postema said there's always the possibility that both court decisions and revisions to state law could impact the city's regulations. He said the city attorney's office is aware of legislation pending in Lansing that would add additional restrictions to where caregivers can operate. The legislative process, though, is likely to be "quite tortured," Postema said.

"No. 1, it takes a 75 percent vote to amend what has been a citizen initiative, so I wouldn't hold my breath for the state Legislature to act on this," he said.

Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, said he wonders why the city is fearful of proceeding with a licensing ordinance when Colorado taxes medical marijuana without fear.

Postema said the federal government is looking carefully at dispensaries and initiating action against them, and it's already happened in Michigan.

A small handful of medical marijuana activists attended Monday's meeting and addressed the council. Tony Keene, a medical marijuana entrepreneur who previously ran a cultivation facility on South Industrial Highway that he says has since shut down, apologized for filing and then dropping a lawsuit against the city earlier this year.

Keene told council members the purpose of his lawsuit was to push the city to clarify the definitions of "dispensary" and "cultivation facility," but he agreed taking legal action while the ordinances were being crafted was premature and apologized for taking up the city attorney's time. He said it's evident the city now has a clear and well-defined licensing ordinance.

"I believe it to be as clear and unambiguous of an ordinance as can be constructed under the current MMMA," Keene said, referring to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.

Keene said the last time he spoke before council he also took a hard stance against dispensaries and that was wrong. As a partner in what he considers Michigan's only full-service medical cannabis testing laboratory, he says he's visited many dispensaries.

"What I have experienced is a geographically dispersed, balanced, yet diverse group of professional caregivers that have opened clear and unambiguous transfer locations for patients," he said. "Six months ago I would have fought hard to discourage grandfathering in licensing to existing dispensaries. However, today now I believe it would be unfair not to give great consideration to the hard-working compliance Ann Arbor's current collectives exhibit."

Medical marijuana advocate Rhory Gould thanked council members for steps taken to loosen restrictions for caregivers, but he voiced concerns about the length of the moratorium.

"It is now June 2011 and the city has come a long way with this ordinance," he said. "But at this time, it's time to do what's right by passing an ordinance that protects patients, caregivers and the dispensaries and makes them feel safe in the city."

Chuck Ream, a leading voice in the local medical marijuana movement and owner of a dispensary on Packard, applauded the council.

"I think basically we have succeeded. I think basically we've got an ordinance here that reflects what the voters of Ann Arbor really would like to see," Ream said. "Voters want patients treated, they don't want caregivers harassed, and in Ann Arbor the voters realize that the (federal) marijuana laws are wrong in the first place."

Briere said the real test will be in two weeks. She said the council has spent months trying to hammer out language that would please everybody, and now it's up to the council to decide whether to implement the ordinances that have been crafted.

"Next council meeting, we're going to start looking at this with fresh eyes and say, 'Do I really want to support this?'" she said.

"If council members as a whole feel that dispensaries are an error because they're not 100 percent supported in the state enabling legislation, then that's what will happen at the vote," she said, mentioning that only as a possible outcome. "So it'll be interesting to see."

News Hawk- Jacob Ebel 420 MAGAZINE
Source: annarbor.com
Author: Ryan J. Stanton
Contact: Contact Us
Copyright: AnnArbor.com LLC
Website: Ann Arbor city attorney says 'dilemma is extreme' when it comes to regulating medical marijuana dispensaries
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