Clearing the air: Which Oakland County communities are allowing medical or recreational pot businesses?

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Michigan has become increasingly cannabis-friendly over the past decade.

Voters legalized marijuana use for some medical conditions in 2008, and recreational marijuana use last November for adults age 21 and older.

But those new freedoms certainly don’t mean a free market. Or, in many cases, any market at all.

Along with the relaxed rules, local governments have the opportunity to exercise a level of control within their geographic boundaries.

So far, some communities in Oakland County have opted to allow medical marijuana businesses. Many more communities have acted to ban recreational marijuana businesses.

Of Oakland County’s 61 communities, just five – Ferndale, Hazel Park, Orion Township, Walled Lake and, as of Feb. 11, Madison Heights – have given the OK for people to grow, process, test, transport or sell cannabis for medical purposes.

As the law is written, those operations are allowed only in municipalities that have enacted ordinances permitting them.

Still, 26 of the county’s municipalities have adopted ordinances or resolutions prohibiting medical marijuana facilities, and another 15 have such action under consideration or otherwise in the works.

When it comes to allowing commercial recreational marijuana businesses to operate, 31 Oakland County communities have said no, even though the state has yet to finalize rules governing recreational marijuana businesses.
Greenhouse budtender and customer
Budtender Tai Ayala helps Wesley DeVaughn with a cannabis purchase at Greenhouse, Oakland County's first licensed medical marijuana store.

Medical Marijuana

Oakland County’s first – and currently only – medical marijuana store, Greenhouse, opened on Feb. 4, with little fanfare but plenty of customers.

Owner Jerry Millen counted more than 300 making their way through the doors in the first two hours alone, many of them commenting about the convenience of having a cannabis store closer to where they live.

Before Greenhouse debuted, they’d travel to Detroit or Ann Arbor or Flint to buy their marijuana, a considerable hike from Oakland County, customers said.

Walled Lake City Manager L. Dennis Whitt believes that welcoming cannabis-related businesses is indicative of “a forward-thinking city council.”

“And I think they’ve been forward-thinking since the beginning (when medical marijuana was legalized). They took on this political issue and did the right thing.”

Whitt, whose earlier career was spent in law enforcement in Dade County, Florida, said he’s been “on the other side” of the marijuana issue, too. During his years on the beat and later as police chief in a small town outside of Miami, Whitt said his job included enforcing laws which were needlessly harsh on marijuana users.

“To put someone in jail for a whole lot of years, ruining their career and their life, that was just devastating. It’s the harder drugs that are the problem – heroin, cocaine, crack, meth – not marijuana,” Whitt said. He also noted that, in his experience, claims that cannabis is a “gateway drug” are unfounded.

Walled Lake has a marijuana bureau within its police department to ensure any related business operations comply with the law, Whitt added. Greenhouse’s Millen, he said, “has played it straight from the beginning, played by all the rules. That’s a model for how to do it.”

Yet, Whitt said, his views on marijuana use and laws governing it are irrespective of his duty to stand behind his city’s leaders.

“I embrace (allowing medical marijuana business) because it’s my job to uphold the ordinances of the city. I support it because my council supports it,” he said.

In Orion Township, a medical cannabis-related development — Oakland Business Park —broke ground in late October 2018.

Oakland Business Park
Oakland Business Park

So far, one of its three buildings is completed and tenants are expected to begin moving in within the next one to three months, said Ryan Jundt, Oakland Business Park principal. Construction will continue on the other two buildings for the next six months, he said.

Last fall, prior to the development getting underway, township Supervisor Chris Barnett said the proposed plan was carefully scrutinized by the township board before it was approved.

The board opted out of permitting on-site marijuana sales but gave the OK for the other cannabis-related operations: growing, processing, laboratory testing and secure transport of products.

Barnett likened it to “a pharmaceutical company coming to our community” and said it will spur economic development in the community, including job creation.

Recreational Marijuana

Officially, it’s the Michigan Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, approved by 55.9 percent of voters last November, that eliminates most legal issues for recreational cannabis consumers.

Some say it will eventually eliminate the need for medical marijuana’s own set of rules, including the state registry.

Effective Dec. 6, 2018, the new law allows for anyone age 21 and older to have 2.5 ounces of marijuana on their person, and up to 10 ounces at home – though anything more than 2.5 ounces kept at home must be locked up.

Legal sales aren’t permitted yet, and won’t be until the State of Michigan comes up with rules to regulate cannabis stores.

That’s not expected to happen until this fall at the earliest, and possibly not until late 2020. But it’s anticipated that licensed medical marijuana stores will be first in line for state licenses to sell recreational weed.

Local municipalities can’t prohibit the use or possession of cannabis, provided it’s done within the parameters of the law.

But ahead of the pending regulations issued by the state, 30 Oakland County communities have already banned commercial recreational marijuana businesses by adopting new ordinances or amending existing ones regarding marijuana sales and other cannabis-related operations.

While they aren’t required to report to the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs if they opt out of allowing those businesses, so far six Oakland County municipalities – Addison Township, Rochester, Rochester Hills, West Bloomfield Township, the Village of Milford and Northville – are among the 200-plus statewide who have done so.

“I pushed the city council to consider banning (recreational marijuana) establishments. I’m not convinced they are appropriate for our community,” Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett said. “I understand and respect what the voters of Michigan did, but voters also gave municipalities the chance to opt out.”

Potential negative impacts on community health and increased demand for police services tip the scales in favor of prohibiting cannabis businesses, he said.

“Obviously, there are some tax implications and revenue streams (that are sacrificed). But when you look at the potential downside of the operations, we didn’t think that the rewards outweigh the concerns that the establishments pose,” Barnett said.

While not on the official list compiled by LARA, a number of other municipalities have also passed local laws to prohibit marijuana facilities.

Birmingham is among them. For that city, the vote came Nov. 12, just days after recreational marijuana use was OK’d statewide, with five of seven city commissioners present for the vote.

Andrew Harris, the only commissioner to vote against the ordinance amendment, said such a prohibition conflicts with what Michigan residents supported at the polls.

“The thrust of the vote in the state – and Oakland County as well – allows for more opportunities of sales and use of recreational marijuana," Harris said.

He also believes it was wrong to take the prohibitive action before LARA weighs in with its regulations.

“I don’t think it was appropriate to issue regulations before taking into account (what the state will decide). The proposal seemed premature to me,” Harris said.

Independence Township residents can also expect to see recreational marijuana businesses prohibited within their community.The township board has so far had one reading of an ordinance banning them, and the second reading is pending.

Troy is another community in Oakland County likely to prohibit recreational marijuana facilities.

In November, the Troy city council directed the city administration to develop an ordinance regulating recreational marijuana, and is “leaning towards opting out,” said Aileen Dickson, city clerk.

The city attorney’s office is taking the lead on drafting the ordinance and so far nothing has been brought to the table. Dickson said it likely won’t happen until the state announces its rules.

In Auburn Hills, the answer will come much sooner about both medical and recreational marijuana facilities. A Feb. 25 public hearing before the city council is scheduled on a proposed ordinance amendment that would ban both. A vote is expected following the hearing.

Farmington Hills city leaders will also discuss options for both medical and recreational facilities on Feb. 25 during a study session, but won’t vote on them that evening. And in Berkley, residents are being offered an online survey through Feb. 26, so the city council can gauge opinions on recreational marijuana facilities. In addition, the city held a Feb.19 town hall meeting on the topic.

A number of other communities are taking a wait-and-see approach, holding off making a decision until LARA establishes rules for recreational marijuana. Among them is Brandon Township.

“Once the regulations are set by the state, we’ll decide whether it could be a good fit for our township,” said Kathy Thurman, Brandon Township supervisor.

A legal voice

Royal Oak-based Cannabis Legal Group’s Nick Galendez offered a number of insights into the state’s evolving marijuana landscape.

Michigan’s laws have evolved in a relatively short period of time, so some level of confusion should be expected, he said.

There are now three different laws in Michigan relating to cannabis:

The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA),

The Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act (MMFLA), and,

The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act (MRTMA).

Nick Galendez
Attorney Nick Galendez of Cannabis Legal Group

“Each of those laws are similar in the sense that they address marijuana possession, use, cultivation, and other conduct by both individuals and businesses, but each of those laws is written differently and it is important to be careful not to confuse one with the other,” Galendez said.

More mature marijuana markets, like those in Colorado and California, have had growing pains as their laws have changed, and it will take time to settle.

“The issue is not unique to Michigan,” Galendez said. “For that reason, it is in everyone's best interest to think critically about the language in the law and regulations and how they work in practice. The more we work together to establish Michigan's licensed and regulated cannabis industry, the better it will end up for everyone involved.

The election of a new governor and attorney general, and a new director of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs means there will be a period of political transition.

“Right now, more and more municipalities have been adopting ordinances that prohibit adult-use facilities within their jurisdiction than are allowing them,” Galendez said. “On the one hand, there are communities that are taking a more conservative approach by deciding to ‘opt out’ now with the intention of potentially ‘opting in’ at some point in the future once the elected officials have researched and educated themselves as to how this decision would impact the local community.”

Galendez also said the black market for marijuana won’t disappear overnight.

“One of the ways to successfully absorb the black market is to allow more licensed facilities to exist, which requires more municipalities to adopt ordinances allowing medical and adult-use facilities within their jurisdiction,” he said. “This would open up more properties for licensed facilities to serve a greater footprint throughout the state, which would then allow the supply to meet the demand. After prices settle and the industry prices are comparable to what is offered on the black market, more consumers will opt for buying safe, tested, and compliant marijuana products from legitimate, licensed facilities rather than an unknown product from the black market.”

 
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