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What's next for pot? State laws, local scale, and who's saying what in the marijuana industry

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Recent statewide initiatives continue to further support for the issue, even while local law enforcement cracks down on purveyors. With such a muddled playing field, what's next for pot in Grand Rapids? Who are the experts and what do they have to say about the future of marijuana in Michigan?
Ever since Michigan voters approved the use of medical marijuana in the state in 2008, this popular plant has been a topic of discussion here (not to mention across the country). A few years later, in 2012, when Washington and Colorado became the first two states to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, widespread pot use and support had clearly arrived, prompting local laws like the Grand Rapids decriminalization of possession and use of marijuana in 2013, making it purely a civil offense with attached fines.

Now in 2017, with eight states having legalized recreational use, and 17 having approved its sale and use medically, it can be a tad confusing about who, where, and when marijuana enthusiasts can purchase its various products.

Recent statewide initiatives continue to further support for the issue, even while local law enforcement cracks down on purveyors. With such a muddled playing field, what's next for pot in Grand Rapids? Who are the experts and what do they have to say about the future of marijuana in West Michigan?

Closed: dispensary at 4920 Plainfield Ave. NE.

In September 2016, Governor Snyder signed three bills into law regarding the marijuana industry in Michigan, known as the Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act. Essentially, this new legislation legalized the use of non smokable forms of medical marijuana—ie., edibles, vaping, etc.— and provision centers, created a 3 percent tax on sales, and developed a seed-to-sale tracking system.

Regarding the new legislation, Attorney Brandon Gardner of Grand Rapids Cannabis Attorneys says, "It's about time." He continues, "Those laws have been in the works ever since the McQueen decision in 2013. It provides the regulatory framework for the commercial growing, processing, and sale of medical marijuana in Michigan that was not included in the original 2008 voter initiative."

This new legislation also leaves the decision of whether or not to allow medical dispensaries to exist up to local governments. "The act permits municipalities to pass ordinances," says Gardner. "Without ordinances, licensees will not be able to operate." Basically, if a dispenser has obtained a state license but Kent County has determined to opt out of a cannabis ordinance, this business cannot legally run in this county. Thus the real issue, explains Gardner, is the age old: "location, location, location."

Plain and simple? Not really.

"There's nothing simple about it. It's tough work," says Jamie Cooper, owner of Canna Media Works, a cannabis consulting firm. "It's very similar to liquor licensing but there are a lot more regulations to it." Cooper explains that the state licensing board, who will begin accepting applications for medical dispensaries this December, controls the "who." Municipalities, however, can control how many, and where they can be located.

Closed: dispensary at 4981 Plainfield Ave. NE.

In her work, Cooper encourages her clients—entrepreneurs who are interested in starting a cannabis business—to acquire funding, to find viable property, and most importantly, to begin convincing their local township to adopt a cannabis ordinance. "City government operates really slowly," says Cooper, who herself advocates for these local ordinances on behalf of her clients. "They [local government] need to be educating themselves on the opportunities that come along with this business."

Jamie CooperDespite advice from marijuana professionals like Cooper, some businesses choose to operate without local ordinances in place, which was the case in November 2016, when Grand Rapids law enforcement raided seven medical marijuana dispensaries, all located within Plainfield township.

These dispensaries were operating within the legal grey area that existed before the Gov. Snyder Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act went into effect. This crackdown essentially discontinued the operation of unlicensed facilities, but still surprised many in the community who relied upon these businesses to obtain legal medical marijuana.

"It's tough over on this side of the state," says Cooper.

Since the closing of GR dispensaries, many with legal medical marijuana cards could likely travel to Lansing to obtain their treatment, according to an article in the Lansing State Journal. "I don't know of any dispensaries this side of Lansing now," said one card-holder, who did not wish to be named. The article goes on to address what some Michigan cities, including Lansing, are doing about the grey areas posed by the 2008 Medical Marijuana Act, which did not license dispensaries.

"Cities such as Lansing are trying to prepare for the new laws by crafting local ordinances that allow licences [sic] for commercial establishments like dispensaries. But it has been an often tedious process that's led to several public meetings and debates over multiple drafts," said Eric Lacy, the article's author.

Despite cannabis support in Lansing, "The response has been kind of mixed on the west side of the state," says Gardner, noting that the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners wrote a resolution opposing recreational legalization in May of this year, while Kent County has taken a "wait-and-see" approach. "These communities don't want to make decisions until they see the regulations," adds Cooper.

"I'm hoping that municipalities in Kent County are really going to take a hard look at what their people are missing and that is safe access to medicine," says Gardner, who himself is concerned about the high number of medical patients within GR that prefer cannabis treatment. "The real issue is medicine for patients," he says.

Closed: dispensary on the 1200 block of Taylor Ave. N.

Advocates and consultants like Cooper are also thinking about the economic value of legal and regulated pot. "It's a booming business," says Cooper, noting that the industry is expected to grow to over $21 billion per year by 2021, and the medical facilities act has the potential of growing Michigan's cannabis industry to $711 million annually. "Our state could really use the tax revenue that could be created by this," she adds.

Cooper also notes that there are many investors in West Michigan excited about the prospect of opening and expanding medical marijuana dispensaries. However, "A lot of investors don't want to invest until they see that approval from the community," she says.

Closed: dispensary on the 5000 block of Circle Dr. NE.

Despite these local disparities, groups still exist that are shooting for the proverbial moon—statewide legalization of recreational use of marijuana.

The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, "the largest organization in the U.S. that’s focused solely on ending marijuana prohibition," is quickly gaining traction on its initiative to put this issue on the ballot by November of next year. Earning almost half of the required 252,523 signatures by mid July, the group is quickly gaining attention and support. "It looks like it has steam," says Gardner. "I anticipate it for on the ballot for 2018," he adds.

As laws continue to be passed, advocates work toward widespread acceptance, and investment interest increases, marijuana use in Michigan becomes more of a reality. Whether it's purely medical, or some time in the future, recreational, pot is seemingly here to stay. "Marijuana is one of those interesting topics because I've been it go across party lines," says Gardner. "Ted Nugent and Cheech and Chong can agree on the legalization of marijuana."

Click here for more information about the Marijuana Policy Project.
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