Cities prepare to corner marijuana market

While some municipalities have opted out, others are ready for the promised gold rush.
Paul Farage owns the Society of Healing Arts Institute, which helps connect clients with medical marijuana cards. Photo by Mike Buck

Mike Burns, the city manager in Lowell, is a clean-cut government functionary — hardly a poster child for Michigan’s new recreational marijuana boom. He spent nearly 10 years as a Macomb County deputy sheriff before he found himself in city government. He referees football in his spare time.

But nearly a year after Lowell city leaders declined to ban recreational pot shops, businesses are hungry to corner the marijuana market in the small West Michigan town of about 4,000 people.

And the phone is constantly ringing.

“I get four calls a day,” he said in November. “My philosophy is that they’re legitimate businesses. We do have a lot of people who are in that industry who are interested in coming to Lowell. My thought is that we treat them no different than we would any other business.”

Lowell is just one example of the seismic shift in public opinion on marijuana over the last decade, during which support for legalization has surged. According to Pew Research Center, 67% of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, up from just 12% in 1969. Michigan’s Proposal 1, which legalized recreational use in 2018, passed by a 12-percentage-point majority. Marijuana, once the stuff of deadly serious anti-drug ads, is losing its boogeyman reputation.

There is a long list of communities that, under Michigan’s new law, have opted out of actually hosting marijuana shops, meaning that while recreational possession and consumption will be legal there, sales will not. But there still are numerous cities in Michigan that are building regulations to welcome recreational marijuana — and the scramble to capture customers has the makings of a gold rush.

Grand Rapids is among those communities that are expected to welcome recreational dispensaries, but it’s still building its precise policy. Right now, city leaders are approving plans for local medical marijuana facilities. Landon Bartley, a senior planner with Grand Rapids, said more than 20 have been given the nod, after which they’re cleared to go after “permitting and build-out” and state licensing.

“We reasonably expect, potentially, to have some medical facilities open — if not by the end of the year, by early 2020,” Bartley said in November.

But recreational marijuana — the core of 2018’s statewide vote — is another matter. City leaders passed an ordinance earlier this year that affirms that Grand Rapids will “opt-in” and welcome recreational marijuana businesses. But that ordinance notes that the “license issuance date” won’t be until April 20 (get it?), and Bartley points out that there is a ways to go with actual licensing law.

“(The current ordinance) just says, if there is marijuana use in the city, it will require a license,” he said. “So, when we say, yeah, we’re going to permit them, sure. I’m just not sure which ones, and in what manner, at this point.”

Bartley said Grand Rapids is unlikely to have a purely recreational marijuana dispensary open in 2020, though a medical marijuana shop may be able to jump across the notional aisle and sell recreational products sooner. But, given the lack of firm regulations in place just yet, it’s still hard to be precise.

And all those regulatory questions mean observers are watching closely. Tami VandenBerg is a local marijuana advocate and was a vocal supporter of Proposal 1. She said she is working with business partners toward medical permissions for a Division Street “provisioning center.” She pointed out there’s a significant movement afoot for local businesses to get started right away — and if that’s with medical permitting, so be it.

“I think every person applying for a medical marijuana license, anywhere in the state, is doing that based on the hope that they will also be able to do recreational at some point,” she said. Besides, she added, what happens to the demand for medical supply when recreational stores open?

But she also added concerns that the new licenses for marijuana shops be distributed to local owners, too. She’s worried that state and city regulations are creating the unintended consequence of pricey real estate in the zones where pot sales will be permitted and that the only people who will get their hands on a license will be the wealthy.

“This is kind of a once-in-a-generation wealth-creating opportunity for Grand Rapidians that, so far, has not been realized,” she said.

Paul Farage is owner of the Society of Healing Arts Institute, an Eastown business that helps connect clients with medical marijuana cards. He said he’s worried about what he sees as red tape keeping people out of the market —including him.

“I talk to a lot of growers, I talk to a lot of people who are looking or have put money into being a dispensary,” he said. “Everybody’s waiting.”

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