Published in Economic Development
Tami VandenBerg Tami VandenBerg MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

Crystal Ball 2019 Outlook Q&A: Tami VandenBerg, MiLegalize

BY Sunday, December 23, 2018 03:18pm

Years of mobilization around the movement to legalize marijuana in Michigan bore fruit in 2018. Now, Tami VandenBerg, a board member of the organization that helped bring the legalization initiative to voters, predicts the ways the ‘green rush’ will start to reshape the region’s economy. 

Now that recreational marijuana is legal in Michigan, what’s coming in 2019? 

It is going to be a fascinating year. Many moving parts. Many moving policies. We finally have a little bit of clarity, in terms of what Grand Rapids is going to allow. They will begin taking applications for some medical businesses in January and some in March. That’s going to be a big deal. We’re going to see, for the first time this century, legal businesses with cannabis in Grand Rapids. There are a lot of people from out of town coming in, which is great, and also more competition for the locals. The zoning is still extremely limited in terms of where you can open. That’s driving up the cost of getting into the business. The mayor and city commission and the community wanted to see a lot of locals be able to get into the marijuana business. With the current zoning, they may have done the opposite. They may have restricted it to a point where you’re going to need to have pretty large sums of cash to even apply for a license.

Because of the cost of the property?

Yes. The zoning is so small. It’s very basic supply and demand. I understand they want limited licenses, but when you have the zoning so restricted, the price is going to go three times what it would have been. It’s giving a very serious advantage to people who have liquid cash, who don’t need to get any kind of financing or to locate investors. I was talking to a gentleman who actually has a building randomly in the zone. He said it’s like hitting the lottery. His building just tripled in value overnight. Lucky him, right?

Does he want to get into the weed business?

He has a functioning business there that is doing well. He’s probably going to move that. I will say I’m glad we’re starting somewhere. They’re allowing licenses. That’s what we fought for. That’s what we wanted. We wanted more access. We will fight for that. At the end of the day, it’s about business. It’s also about access for patients.

In addition to raising capital, what can people who are interested do to get in at the ground floor of this industry?

We’re forming a guild, West Michigan Cannabis Guild, for anyone in the business or looking to get into the business or ancillary businesses. You have people that are going to open up provisioning centers and grow facilities. Then you have the marketing people. You have Growco and your greenhouse people. This is not just going to benefit people directly in the business. There are all kinds of ancillary businesses that are already popping up — websites, tech. There are people working on apps for what strain works for what condition. It really is the ‘green rush.’ I don’t know how much people realize this. This is a once in a lifetime thing. It’s like the tech boom. It’s like ending alcohol prohibition. There are only so many times in your life where you’re going to see this giant new industry take root.

Both the governor-elect and the incoming attorney general were favorable toward legalizing marijuana. Does that make a difference in the process? 

Yes, especially the governor. I think that’s going to help a lot. The state has a year to put together all of the rules. One of the reasons that medical marijuana facilities have been such a mess, in terms of getting licenses and the backlog and so many people getting denied, is there’s the medical marijuana board that has to approve every single application. That’s been a group that’s appointed by the governor. That group has not been terribly friendly to anybody who was in the business before it was legal. Our hope is that we’re going to see this whole process go much more smoothly.

Is there anything that people aren’t paying attention to that could happen next year and make a big difference in the industry? 

I see in 2019, every city or county individual who’s up for election is going to be forced to talk about cannabis in the state of Michigan. In Grand Rapids, we’ve got a mayor that’s up for re-election. I don’t know who all is going to jump in that race. Three city commission seats. We’re going to be right there. We’re going to be talking to every single one of them. We also want to keep an eye on how many people are moving into town for this or moving into the state for this. Michigan has been losing population for many years. This going to start bringing people back, which is great, except that’s going to drive up costs.

Grand Rapids has been gaining people already. 

I think Grand Rapids is one of the only cities that’s been gaining. That’s going to be another interesting piece. People are worried about housing prices. They have been very high. Most states that have legalized have seen about a 7 percent increase in property values. Is the city going to be able to use some of the tax money they get in to help with the housing stuff? How strategic are they going to be? How in front of this are they going to be? That’s the stuff I’m going to be watching. That’s the stuff I’m going to be involved with.

Interview conducted and condensed by Jessica Young. 

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