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High time: Michigan begins recreational marijuana sales 13 months after vote

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor Michigan pot shops opened their doors to recreational sales and a new crop of customers 13 months after voters approved a ballot measure legalizing adult use.

Consumers from across Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania on Sunday lined up outside provisioning centers to kick off what is expected to be one of the largest adult-use markets in the Midwest. The state of Michigan forecasts the sales will total hundreds of millions of dollars in the first year, though with only a few retailers issued licenses, access is expected to be limited for now.

"Marijuana is not illegal anymore, and you can buy it at the store like a fifth of scotch," John Sinclair, marijuana activist and face of the "Free John Now!" movement in the 1970s, said Sunday. "That's incredible."

Kelly Savage, 25, of Ohio, left, with Karessa Elsberry, right, makes the first purchase of recreational marijuana at Exclusive Provisioning Center in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1, 2019.

Sinclair was the first to purchase recreational marijuana at Arbors Wellness around 10 a.m. in downtown Ann Arbor. He had gained international recognition in 1969 for being sentenced to up to 10 years in jail for giving an undercover police officer two marijuana joints — which led to protests and even a rally where Beatles star John Lennon performed and sang a song about Sinclair.

"It felt great," Sinclair, 78, of Detroit said of his first purchase of legal recreational marijuana. He bought two pre-rolled joints — one of which was called Gorilla Glue No. 4. "That was always the goal on my part, that it would be normalized. You want a joint? Go to the store and buy one."

Although the law Michigan voters passed in November 2018 legalized recreational marijuana for people of at least 21 years of age, the state had a year to set up a system to accept and issue adult-use business licenses. The state did so ahead of its Dec. 6 deadline: Michigan issued its first recreational license to Exclusive Brands LLC's provisioning center in Ann Arbor on Nov. 19.

“I am proud of the hard work our team put in to implement the will of the voters, ahead of deadline," Andrew Brisbo, executive director of the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, said in a statement.

Around 300 people lined up outside Exclusive ahead of 10 a.m., when retailers could begin transferring some of their medical inventory for recreational sale in the state's marijuana tracking system. Many consumers waited for hours in rain and the chilly morning temperatures.

Kelly Savage, 25, of Ohio, left, makes the first purchase of recreational marijuana giving cash to general manager Nick Warra, right, at Exclusive Provisioning Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Dec. 1, 2019.

Kelly Savage, 25, of Columbus, Ohio, was the first to purchase recreational marijuana from Exclusive. He arrived before the store closed Saturday to be the first in line.

"I wanted to be a part of history," Savage, a landscaper, said before exchanging $480 in cash for an ounce of Platinum OG, a flower with a high content of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC. "It was worth it. Even if it was just a half an ounce, it would have been worth it."

►Read more: Everything you to need to know as recreational pot goes on sale in Michigan

Savage has type 1 diabetes. He takes insulin as a correction, but the effects are not felt immediately: Marijuana "helps a lot," he said.

By late afternoon, more than 100 people still were lined up outside Greenstone Provisions in Ann Arbor. Many said they had been waiting four or more hours.

"I'm going to get blasted," Legindary Lee Man, a 30-year-old rapper from Southfield, said as he left with Sundae Brunch flower.

Consumers likened the historic occasion to the Berlin Wall falling and said it was one step forward to legalizing marijuana nationally.

Recreational marijuana being sold at Arbors Wellness in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1, 2019.

Gregg Etzel, 67, of Ann Arbor let his medical card expire on Nov. 1 to come to Exclusive's pot shop on Sunday "to be a part of history."

"I feel broke," said Etzel, who arrived at 5 a.m. to purchase $280 of flower and wax, which he expects will last him at least a month. The cost, however, is worth it: "It got me off opioids. The withdrawal was awful. The doctors did that to me. With marijuana, there is no withdrawal."

Rhonda McKay, 43, of Royal Oak felt similarly: "I use marijuana to not get addicted to painkillers. I've seen it happen to too many people. I don't want to go down that same road."

Recreational marijuana is more expensive than medical marijuana. In addition to Michigan's 6% sales tax, there is a 10% excise tax. The tax, however, is one of the lowest in the country. Some retailers also charge more for recreational marijuana.

"I think it will create a lot of tax revenue to fund education," Randy Stevens, 35, of Garden City said outside Greenstone. "Maybe it will help fix the roads ... one doobie at a time."

Other states like Washington have had challenges moving consumers off the black market because of high taxes.

"Hopefully that doesn't happen here," Igor Arutiunian, 28, of Oak Park said. "Based on the turnout today, it seems to be working."

A line stretches about a block from Arbors Wellness in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Dec. 1, 2019, the first day of legal recreational marijuana sales in Michigan.

Many in line Sunday said they had been using marijuana since they were teenagers for social and medical reasons. They were glad to be able to make their purchases legally.

"I don't have to go find someone on the street and worry where it's from," said Annie Marta, 29, of Detroit, who works in the medical field. "I'm making connections with knowledgeable people and not connections with people maybe I don't want to be connected with."

Added Rich Oliver, 31, of Grand Rapids, who arrived at 3 a.m. to buy $120 for eights of Skunk Berry and Platinum Sunshine flower: "It's safe and tested. I know where it's coming from. The stigma is essentially gone."

Consumers can purchase up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at a time. Marijuana cannot be used in public, on school property or on federal lands. It is illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana or take it across state lines. Employers still can fire or refuse to hire people who fail a drug test.

Pre-rolled recreational marijuana for sale at Arbors Wellness in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1, 2019.

Outside Arbors Wellness, Kerry Dawe, 60, of Brighton had on a leash his German shepherd, Otto, who is a fan of CBD biscuits. Dawe himself has used marijuana for 55 years. His daughter Kel Dawe uses it, too.

"It should've been legal a long time ago," the 35-year-old writer from Westland said. "You can get your medicine no questions asked, no risk."

The long lines were putting stress on some retailers' inventories. A menu from Greenstone showed the retailer had run out of three strains of flower and pre-rolled joints. Licensed retailers can transfer for adult-use up to 50% of their inventory they have had for at least 30 days. Growers and processors with recreational licenses on Sunday also were able to transfer 50% of their medical product for recreational sale.

Arbors Wellness took advantage of those transfers, manager Al Moroz said. Before noon, the retailer had received three deliveries of marijuana from processor Arbor Kitchen LLC in the city transported by Greenline Express.

"There's definitely a chance of a shortage in the future," Moroz said. "We'll be doing our best to continue selling into the week. Ever since regulated medical sales began, there's been some challenges with obtaining product. We've gotten to a good point, but we just opened up sales to a way larger group of people."

Organizations including the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association have voiced opposition to marijuana businesses being able to transfer medical product to the recreational track over concerns of limited inventory and increased prices.

The state of Michigan can end the ability of marijuana businesses to transfer product from the medical side to recreational, though it has not said when that will happen.

An employee prepares smell samples of marijuana flowers for recreational sale for customers to check on the fragrance of products at Exclusive Provisioning Center in Ann Arbor on Dec. 1, 2019.

Retailers said access for their patients to their medicine is their top concern, though few medical cardholders were in the shops Sunday, as they were warned of the likely rush of recreational buyers.

"Access for our patients is our No. 1 priority," said Narmin Jarrous, Exclusive's vice president of business development.

Six retailers in Ann Arbor, Evart and Morenci said they were beginning recreational sales this week. More than 1,400 municipalities, however, have banned marijuana businesses from opening shop in their communities.

"This further reinforces the fact that while Americans may support the idea of marijuana decriminalization, they are not okay with a commercial industry pushing its addictive, super potent candies, gummies, ice creams, and vaping oils on their street corners," Kevin Sabet, president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action and its Michigan affiliate Healthy and Productive Michigan that fought legalization, said in a statement.

Still, many consumers on Sunday like Mo Orr, 46, of Pontiac were enthusiastic about recreational sales: "It's like Christmas came early."


Twitter: @BreanaCNoble