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Battle heats up over medical marijuana on Detroit ballot

Oct 19, 2017

A battle is shaping up over two Detroit ballot proposals on medical marijuana, and things got pretty heated between supporters and opponents of the measures Thursday.

A group of City Council members, pastors, and community activists held a press conference to urge “no” votes on the two ballot questions next month. But a few pro-medical cannabis activists showed up too, with the two sides exchanging impromptu jabs at times.

One ballot proposal would opt Detroit into the state Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act. Proponents say that would strengthen regulations on medical marijuana facilities. The second ballot proposal would amend the city code to allow marijuana growers, “secure transporters,” and other ventures to operate in certain areas of the city.

Opponents say Detroit just passed a city ordinance setting rules for medical pot operations last year, and these proposals would directly undermine parts of that ordinance.

Marcus Cummings of the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition says that ordinance is working.

“We have, I believe, about 60 dispensaries that have their license properly through the city,” Cummings said. “So we just want to make sure that we keep what we have in place, and not mess it up.”

The ordinance was passed largely in response to the sense that the medical marijuana industry was taking advantage of lax regulations to set up shop in Detroit. Residents complained some neighborhoods became saturated with fly-by-night operations that became magnets for crime and nuisance violations, particularly as neighboring suburbs cracked down on dispensaries.

Last year, Detroit identified over 280 dispensaries operating “illegally.” The city says it has shut down 175 of them.

Cummings and some other activists say they’re particularly concerned the ballot measures would erase zoning regulations that restrict where dispensaries can locate, including within 1000 feet of designated spots like schools, churches, and other dispensaries. It would also remove Detroit’s zoning board from the licensing process.

Cummings says those issues initially kept the proposals off the ballot, because it was believed state law protected local governments’ authority over zoning rules. But a Wayne County judge overruled that argument and ordered the proposals on the ballot.

“If the sensible cannabis folks just came with a clean opt-in, opt-out proposal, we probably wouldn’t have this issue,” Cummings said. “But when they went to gut the zoning regulations that the city already put in place, that’s what opened up this can of worms.”

But Thomas Lavigne, a partner with the law firm Cannabis Counsel, says both proposals make good sense.

Lavigne was one of the handful of pro-medical marijuana activists who showed up at Thursday’s event to dispute and occasionally heckle the claims of opponents.

He says Detroit’s ordinance regulating pot dispensaries has too many holes, particularly when it comes to product quality and safety.

“It’s actually upping the regulation,” Lavigne said of opting into the new state licensing standards. “Because now you’re going to have to comply with all the testing and labeling. Under the current ordinance, there’s none of that.”

Lavigne says Detroit’s current ordinance is too restrictive in other ways, preventing some patients from getting much-needed medicine. He says it makes sense just to sign onto the state rules.

“Once these new [state] licenses are in place, all of these [dispensaries] will have to close anyway,” Lavigne said. “So the city should have just adopted the new state law. Over a dozen cities around the state have already adopted it.”

But Cummings says allowing ballot measures to subvert properly-adopted city ordinances opens the door for lawsuits, particularly when it comes to municipal zoning laws.

“There were no public hearings on these proposals that snuck up on us on this ballot,” Cummings said.

“Right now it’s medical marijuana. What happens when other businesses who don’t feel like they’re properly zoned say, maybe we can just pull a ballot initiative together?”