‘The toothpaste has left the tube’: Ethical concerns, conflicts of interest emerge in U.P. weed war

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‘The toothpaste has left the tube’: Ethical concerns, conflicts of interest emerge in U.P. weed war

A marijuana war has taken root in Menominee.

And Michael DeDamos is in the middle of it.

DeDamos is one of seven City Councilmembers involved in deciding which pot shops can come to the small Upper Peninsula town to potentially make tens of millions of dollars, given its proximity to the Wisconsin border, where marijuana remains illegal.

“There’s so many layers to this onion that I think a book could be written by the time it’s all said and done,” DeDamos said recently when interviewed at his modest second-floor apartment in Menominee.

The unlikely politician is a single father who grew up in Menominee and helps care for his father, who lives in the apartment below.

“I’m a third-shift gas station clerk who was making minimum wage,” DeDamos said. “I never thought someone like me could get elected to office. It never occurred to me that I could be sitting in this (situation).”

‘Only in America’

DeDamos was among a three-member minority of the City Council who voted against allowing six new marijuana businesses to open up shop. A majority on the council supported the move, however. A flurry of lawsuits followed.

The showdown has led to allegations of secret deals between city leaders and marijuana retailers; a questionable decision by City Council to remove an ethics clause from the city’s marijuana ordinance; and a contentious move by the council to block a ballot proposal that would limit marijuana stores.

Conflict of interest concerns have also been raised, including a councilmember whose brother is one of the attorneys for the marijuana companies.

The divisions in Menominee are clear.

One side is made up of a majority of City Council and six weed retailers hoping to open in Menominee. On the other, a minority of councilmembers, and two already-opened marijuana businesses that would prefer not to share the market.

A town built by lumber barons

Founded in 1863, Menominee first grew to prominence as a booming lumber town.

Lumbermen in the early 1900s razed thousands of trees, shipping timber to markets like Chicago. Lumber barons became wealthy and built hard-to-heat, ornate houses along the lakefront. Some still stand.

The lumber industry faded, along with Menominee’s luster, but the cannabis industry is offering a revival.

A historic photo of a logging family moving logs along the Menominee River on display at the Michael J Anuta Research Center in Menominee, Michigan on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Joel Bissell | [email protected]

Three bridges cross the Menominee River to Marinette, Wisconsin, a slightly larger, more bustling city where thousands of Menominee residents travel each day to work, many at the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipbuilding company that contracts with the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin.

While not without natural beauty, Menominee lacks some of the tourism pizzaz that enriches other U.P. towns. It’s a little more industrial, has paper mills, a diesel engine parts factory and a helicopter manufacturing plant.

“The tourism that we do (well) is basically sport fishing and ... recreational boating,” Menominee historian Mike Kaufman said amid stacks of leatherbound ledgers of archived newspapers dating back to the 1870s. “We have three 18-hole golf courses, stuff like that, but we don’t have the natural attraction, we don’t have the Pictured Rocks.”

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