Some communities devise tough rules as state law leaves gray area on distribution
Medical marijuana is legal in Michigan, but communities across the state are putting up barriers to block entrepreneurs from setting up shop in what critics say is a clear attempt to subvert the law.
Cities are taking vastly different approaches to regulating how medical pot is dispensed -- from bans in Livonia to months-long moratoriums on marijuana businesses in Grand Rapids and Saginaw, to an environment of open mindedness in Hazel Park, where city leaders see pot dispensaries as a potential revenue source.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says it is keeping an eye on the dizzying array of laws popping up across the state as local leaders from big cities to rural enclaves try to interpret Michigan's Medical Marijuana Act, which passed in 2008 by 63 percent and establishes the right of certified patients and caregivers to possess pot. Patients can legally use it.
One caveat all pot peddlers should know: The act does not address dispensaries -- places where marijuana can be obtained by certified patients or their caregivers -- leaving them vulnerable to interpretation by municipalities.
"A ban is the de-facto law regardless of what a city would pass. There is no protection for dispensaries," said Brandy Zink, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association.
In October, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to cease raids on medical dispensaries in 13 states where medical marijuana laws have been passed. Still, many Michigan communities have enacted restrictions on growers or those with hopes of starting a business in the emerging field.
From bans to 'pot zones'
In Livonia, the City Council amended an ordinance to say any business in violation of local, state or federal law is prohibited. The words "medical marijuana" are absent from the ordinance, yet Livonia Police Chief Bob Stevenson said from conversations he's had with federal drug officials, dispensing marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
Stevenson said the new ordinance, passed in July, prohibits marijuana dispensaries from obtaining a license to operate in the Wayne County suburb.
"We don't want to be in the position of sanctioning something that is in violation of federal law," Stevenson said. "These dispensaries are a business -- a million-dollars business ... because it's such a valuable crop. It's worth a lot."
Royal Oak, a progressive Oakland county suburb, was on the verge on creating a "pot zone" along Woodward Avenue where growers could open shop. But after the police chief got wind of Livonia's ordinance, the city is considering following Livonia's lead and banning dispensaries.
Michael Steinberg of the ACLU said his office stands ready to challenge any ordinance that conflicts with state law. Steinberg reviewed the Livonia ordinance and said it does not ban dispensaries, according to his interpretation.
"The state has occupied the field in regulating medical marijuana, and these municipalities simply can't regulate it," Steinberg said. "We have patients and caregivers who are following the law. And it's the city and municipalities who are flouting it."
Hazel Park, a blue-collar inner-ring suburb of Oakland County, is one community considering a different approach for medical marijuana as a business.
City Manager Ed Klobucher said the city has been approached by several groups who are interested in creating a business enterprise for medical marijuana in the city.
Proposal to be considered
Talks have just begun, and the City Council is expected to soon consider a business proposal for a medical marijuana facility that incorporates a clinic, school and marijuana pickup site where patients can smoke it in the industrial business district.
Medical marijuana cannot be sold to patients under the law, but caregivers who provide the plant in medicinal form are allowed to be compensated for their services.
City Councilman Andy LeCureaux said he has shown a few large-scale industrial buildings to business groups interested in setting up shop in the city.
"We have some industrial sites which would be ideal for a secure grow facility. The people who have approached us have business degrees. They all want it to be above-board legal with community support," he said.
LeCureaux said Hazel Park needs to amend its zoning laws to make a medical marijuana facility an allowable use outright or make it allowable with a variance.
"For our community I'm looking at this for economic development and stabilizing home values. Some patients, if they see a community which is friendly toward that plight, they may want to relocate to that community," said LeCureaux, who knows two people who have moved from Ohio to his city in hopes it will become marijuana friendly.
In Grand Rapids, city leaders have enacted a six-month moratorium on medical marijuana distribution until the city's planning commission can come up with rules for it.
City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, who has proposed allowing dispensation only from medical facilities and homes, and banning stand-alone dispensaries, said the focus is on controlling the number of dispensaries so they don't proliferate as they did in Los Angeles.
In January, Los Angeles will consider an ordinance to reduce the number of dispensaries -- estimated at 1,000 -- and push them out of neighborhoods and into industrial areas.
"The challenge for me was balancing the police position with state law and the concerns of neighborhoods and zoning law decisions. The concern from the planning commission is we don't want neighborhoods to turn into distributions centers," Schulz said.
Schulz said Grand Rapids wants to create an ordinance that can be adopted by surrounding communities.
"For local communities, there is not an option of not doing anything. You need to pass a moratorium or come up with some language that discusses these dispensaries," she said. "You have to provide some protection to the community. If you have nothing on the books, they will say there is no rule for it."
January 2, 2010
The Detroit News