Local entrepreneurs collaborate to navigate new cannabusiness industry

After local medical marijuana regulations and statewide recreational use have passed, local advocates and entrepreneurs work together to navigate the new cannabusiness economy.
Cannabis advocacy in Grand Rapids has had quite a dramatic ride over the last twelve months or so. After tensions between advocates and the City Commission came to a head last summer, and now that state voters have legalized recreational adult use of marijuana at last November’s midterm election, the city, residents, and cannabis entrepreneurs seem to have struck a truce with one another at last — thanks to the hard work of countless local advocates.

Near the top of that list would be Michael Tuffelmire, a former board member of MiLegalize and co-founder of Grand Rapids’ 2012 successful DecriminalizeGR campaign. 

“For a conservative area, we’ve been ahead of the game for a long time,” says Tuffelmire.

“If you look at the ballot and the voice of our voters, recreational marijuana passed overwhelmingly in our city,” said Mayor Rosalynn Bliss on December 4th. “As an elected official, I really need to listen to the voice of the community. And that spoke volumes to me.” Bliss stated that the city of Grand Rapids isn’t considering opting out of the state’s new marijuana laws, and that the city commission and planning departments are moving forward on creating the framework for processing medical marijuana facility applications by early March. Medical marijuana dispensaries are slated to open sometime later this spring.

Last summer, highly restrictive medical marijuana ordinance recommendations put forth by the city’s Planning Director sparked local residents’ attention, which led to a packed evening of public input during a July 10th City Commission meeting. The city ultimately adopted an ordinance which offered marginally more zoned locations than the Planning Director recommended. The ordinance, which the Commission waited to adopt until December 18th (after the recreational use ballot initiative had passed), zones for up to 53 dispensaries in the city, and includes a $5,000 licensing fee.

In other words: Grand Rapids is a more restrictive environment for cannabusiness than advocates wanted, but it’s not as restrictive an environment as it could have been.

Guilds and networks are forging a local cottage industry

“The good news is we’re moving forward,” VandenBerg says. “The bad news is that real estate [for marijuana businesses] is so limited.”

With such a limited number of properties identified as candidates for marijuana zoning, competition for this real estate inflates the price beyond the existing market. Additionally, investors must secure property before applying for an operating license, which makes the process of acquiring real estate for marijuana businesses a stiff gamble.

“It’s the chicken or the egg,” says VandenBerg. “You have to get property in order to get prequalified by the state, then you have to go to the city — it’s a very cumbersome process,” particularly, VandenBerg notes, for those who have more limited financial resources. “The zoning [for marijuana businesses in Grand Rapids] is very restrictive to people who aren’t liquid. How many people in Grand Rapids have those kinds of resources?”

Yet plenty of Grand Rapids locals are quietly assessing the scene as aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs, building resources and connections. “I’m in info-gathering mode right now,” says LaTarro Traylor, a well-known community strategist and certified attorney who provides startup consulting under her own firm, fourtifeye. “I’m wading through information, building a knowledge network and connecting with folks like Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and I’m curating people who are positioned to enter the industry. It’s like everybody’s waiting at the starting line of a race, ” says Traylor. “It’s exciting, and it’s also frustrating … to see people from out of town are more likely to be ready to go first.”

Meanwhile, Tuffelmire and Vandenberg are working to elevate talents like Traylor’s and others by quietly building what they refer to as a “Guild” for Michigan’s west side. The Guild would be “working to promote the interests of cannabusiness and its ancillary services,” says Vandenberg, which will include some lobbying work as well as networking and information sharing. “This is an army,” says Tuffelmire, emphasizing how incredible the industry’s mobilization has been. “Tami and I didn’t invent what’s going on here,” he says. “We just gave a name to it.”

Where is the investment coming from?

So far, Traylor says, no local Grand Rapids residents have reached out to her regarding opening a dispensary — only out-of-town entrepreneurs.

VandenBerg and other industry insiders confirm that large-scale out-of-town and out-of-state investments are often the first in line to open their doors, due to their access to investment capital and experience out of state — at least, for now. 

This is why it’s all the more important, emphasizes Traylor, for people and communities with less financial access to work together to pool knowledge, resources, and capital. “But communities can also pool their connections,” she says. “Vendors, collateral — pool everything you need to move into the space. [Cannabusiness entrepreneurs] have to be realistic, and start with what they can do. To treat it more like a cottage industry.”

While local entrepreneurs may not be able to start at the very front of the line, there will be ample demand waiting for them once they’ve pooled the resources and capital necessary to carve out their niche. Kent County Commissioner Jim Talen is optimistic about demand — and about its revenue for the area.

“Once the various entities get situated, I think the revenue stream to the City and County will grow quickly. There’s such pent up demand…” Talen says.

Cannabusiness in minority communities

The accessibility of the industry is on many advocates’ and consultants’ minds, as marijuana-related arrests have affected people and communities of color at a disproportionately higher rate. “Cannabis is something that’s been weaponized against black people,” Traylor notes. “Convictions relating to marijuana are a cornerstone to a life of interaction with the justice system. Marijuana cases might be THE cornerstone of the legal system.” 

Beyond the traditional lack of access to financial capital, Traylor notes that many entrepreneurs in minority communities face other barriers related to generational economics: lack of connections, lack of access to influential networks, lack of a relationship with city leaders, and so on. “There is room for collaboration and knowledge exchange,” Traylor says. “People should connect and find shared opportunities, especially people of color. It’s going to take shared capacity — there’s no room for silos.”

Meanwhile, despite the fact that recreational adult use of marijuana is now legal, that doesn’t mean that underage use or the black market will be disappearing anytime soon. How the black market and underage usage will be handled will have a lot to do with the new city Police Chief the city commission is currently in the process of recruiting, as well as three term-limited city commission seats, which will be newly-elected in the August primary to replace Jon O’Connor (First Ward), Ruth Kelly (Second Ward), and Nathaniel Moody (Third Ward).

Talen is eager to see the city and county benefit from new revenue streams created by cannabusiness, even as he prepares to focus on youth usage prevention. “I’ll be advocating for spending a large part of the new revenue on prevention work with youth. I was a supporter of rec legalization but am very concerned about the possibility of increased use by people under 21. There’s a lot of evidence of the long-term harmful effects of even moderate [underaged] use. Kids and adults need to know about that.”

Moving forward

For many cannabis entrepreneurs, it’s a game of productive waiting. “All you can be doing right now is making a plan,” says Traylor, referencing colleagues like Rachel Lee and Cimone Casson as excellent resources for those interested in the industry. “Cimone has an educational program where she helps people find the right fit for their skillset, whether that’s culinary, or with buildout, or finance — it’s about getting your skills to align.”

Meanwhile, political advocates like Tuffelmire are tailoring the industry for a suit and a tie. “I hate to use a Godfather analogy, but it’s like we’re in Godfather 3 now. We don’t need any more tough guys — we need lawyers.”

“There has been this clandestine attitude towards this industry,” Tuffelmire says, “because we’ve had to operate that way, but we don’t anymore, and now that’s got to stop. We’re trying to start a serious business from the ground floor.”
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