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Sunday, 06 December 2015 22:11

Could retail medical marijuana thrive in West Michigan?

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KIND Dispensary located at 2201 Michigan Avenue in Lansing was one of the first medical marijuana provisioning centers in the city. KIND Dispensary located at 2201 Michigan Avenue in Lansing was one of the first medical marijuana provisioning centers in the city. PHOTO BY RACHEL HARPER

State lawmakers could likely establish a system to tax and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries this month, but many question whether those businesses will ever thrive in West Michigan.

Over the past five years, dispensaries have primarily been located in places like Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit. Dozens operate in the open in those cities under legally gray auspices in which local officials and law enforcement back away from shutting them down.

That’s not necessarily the case in West Michigan, where as recently as last month, medical-marijuana dispensaries were raided and shut down by area drug task forces.

But after years of efforts led by Republican state Rep. Mike Callton from Nashville in Barry County, 2015 may finally be the year Michigan creates a system to clarify the legal ambiguities around dispensaries.

A pair of bills — HB 4209 and 4827 — would require licensing for commercial grow operators, transporters and retail businesses, tracking medical marijuana under a “seed-to-sale” system that could be accessed by law enforcement.

A major component of the legislation, though, would give municipalities the option of regulating dispensaries or banning them outright. Until now, advocates say West Michigan communities and prosecutors have been less-than-friendly toward the businesses.

“I see it going both ways,” said Jamie Goswick, an advocate with the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Medical Marijuana Laws, referring to the likelihood of raids ending. However, she also expects minimal industry growth even if the bills pass. “There is very little to choose from now. I really look forward to seeing people have the opportunity to have a wider selection.”

Goswick is aware of only two dispensaries in Ottawa County and “only a few” in the Grand Rapids area. On Nov. 18, drug enforcement task forces raided three businesses in Plainfield Township near Grand Rapids that police say were illegally selling pot under the state’s medical marijuana law. The police were reportedly tipped off about the businesses and made several undercover visits earlier in the month. The Kent County Prosecutor’s Office will decide if any charges get filed.

“It’s just sad to see one pop up and then immediately get shut down,” Goswick said. “It’s so much more strictly enforced here than on the east side of the state.”

In 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling that medical marijuana dispensaries engaging in patient-to-patient sales are not protected by state law and could be shut down as public nuisances.

Attorney General Bill Schuette advised county officials how to prosecute the businesses as public nuisances, saying at the time that the 2008 voter-initiated law is “not an open door to unrestricted retail marijuana sales.”

A spokesman for the Grand Rapids Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on its position toward dispensaries.

State Sen. Rick Jones, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former Eaton County Sheriff, believes it’s time for the state to start regulating these businesses in lieu of the current situation.

“Right now, what’s going on is totally illegal and someone could end up in prison,” Jones said. “Dispensaries in four cities have been allowed by the mayor and city council to exist. That’s the system we have right now. It’s all quite dangerous for folks involved in this. … I think coming up with a system that allows for growers, transporters and dispensaries is much better.”

Jones said he’s hoping to move the bills out of committee and have a full Senate vote in early December.

A third bill, HB 4210, would amend the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act to allow for edible forms of consumption. All three bills had strong bipartisan support in the House.


KEEPING POT OFF MAIN STREET

Goswick attributed the conservative nature of West Michigan communities as a main driver preventing dispensaries from thriving in the region. Communities here just don’t want to see them, she says.

But, as a former resident of Breckenridge, Colo. — a heavily tourism-dependent town that sought to keep dispensaries off main thoroughfares — she sees an opportunity for places like Holland and Grand Haven, which also attract seasonal tourists.

“There is a way to embrace it without being obnoxious about it,” she said. “In Breckenridge, they didn’t want tourists to see these businesses. They wanted it available, but wanted it out of the direct path through town. I’d love to see a town like Grand Haven embrace that instead of fight it.”

Additionally, Goswick sees business opportunities in West Michigan for product-testing facilities and specialty product makers like marijuana-infused food products.

“It’s exciting to see companies like that pop up,” she said.

Susan Bond, a Kent County-based paralegal who set up a “safe transfer point” business model in several West Michigan locations that matches growers with patients who can’t otherwise grow for themselves, is more skeptical of the dispensary system working in West Michigan.

“I think everyone is going to go back underground” to acquire medical marijuana, she said, referring to the complex and potentially expensive regulatory system.

Rep. Callton has reportedly said that while this may be true, the benefit of having clear direction from the state as opposed to the system in place now outweighs those potential drawbacks.


LAW ENFORCEMENT CONCERNS

Despite strong bipartisan support among lawmakers, there is still uncertainty over whether Gov. Rick Snyder would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk. The governor has not yet taken a position on the bills, according to a spokesman.

“The governor’s office will wait until the legislation is approved in both chambers before being able to conduct a thorough review and determine whether the bills will be signed. We’re still very early in the process for these particular bills,” Snyder spokesperson Dave Murray said in a statement on Nov. 19.

Additionally, police officials and other advocates have expressed concerns to lawmakers, hoping the number of commercial growers’ licenses will be scaled back.

The Michigan Sheriffs Association testified before Jones’ committee in November that local law enforcement units wouldn’t have the resources to inspect such facilities unless the number was capped. That’s a position being advocated by the Michigan Responsibility Council, a trade group “dedicated to the safe and legal use of cannabis for qualified medical patients.”

“We believe, as do members of law enforcement, that the current method of licenses in HB 4209 would provide for hundreds of licenses to meet the demand. We think that’s far too many,” said MRC President and CEO Suzie Mitchell.

Any amendments made in the Senate would be sent back to the House for approval. The House overwhelmingly approved the dispensary regulations and seed-to-sale tracking systems in October on 95-11 and 99-7 votes, respectively.

Read 5894 times Last modified on Wednesday, 16 December 2015 00:05