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Detroit police target violence from illegal marijuana sales

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Detroit — The legalization of marijuana in Michigan has not eliminated black market sales of the drug in Detroit — or the violence associated with it — said the city's police chief, who is rolling out a strategy to combat a recent wave of weed-related shootings and homicides.

Chief James Craig said Tuesday the illegal marijuana market continues to thrive in Detroit, even though Michigan voters in 2018 passed a resolution to legalize the drug, which took effect Dec. 1, 2019. 

"It's supply and demand — there's a higher demand for black market marijuana because it's cheaper," Craig said.

Detroit police chief James Craig says he's initiating a strategy to quell violence stemming from illegal marijuana sales

Adding to the black market: There are no venues in Detroit where recreational marijuana can be legally purchased. The Detroit City Council has banned recreational marijuana sales through Jan. 31, and on Tuesday, councilman James Tate introduced an amendment to extend the ban until March 31. A vote on the extension could come as early as next week.

Illicit marijuana transactions often end in violence, said Craig, who estimated that 60% of the recent shootings and homicides in the city involved black market marijuana sales. The chief said he noticed a spike in violence at the end of 2019, which he said has carried over to this year.

There have been 17 homicides in Detroit in 2020 as of Tuesday, up from 10 during the same period last year, Craig said. Nonfatal shootings during that period increased from 27 in 2019 to 32 this year, he said. 

"I had a meeting with (precinct investigators and Special Response Team members), and they said most of these shootings and homicides came from illegal marijuana sales," Craig said. "That was kind of surprising: my staff tells me there are more shootings involving sales of black market marijuana than any other drug, including cocaine or heroin."

Craig was vague about his enforcement strategy, because he said he didn't want to alert criminals, but said the effort will focus on people illegally carrying guns while selling or buying marijuana on the black market.

"We know definitively that black-market sellers and buyers are carrying guns, many illegally," Craig said. "When it comes to the marijuana itself, things are still vague; if we catch someone during a transaction, they could just say they gifted it if it's under 2 ounces, and that's legal.

"But there's nothing vague about whether it's legal to carry a gun without a permit, so that's what we're focusing on," he said. "We're going to be aggressive about it, while still adhering to constitutional policing."

Craig said he plans to deploy a task force "several days a week to focus on problem areas. I don't want to say what days we'll be out, or where we're going to be, but we are serious about addressing this."

"Right now, there’s an attitude of immunity because the law has changed, and people are moving marijuana around in our city more aggressively than ever," Craig said. "But there's no immunity to illegally carrying a firearm, and that's going to be our focus."

Stuart Carter, owner of the Utopia Gardens medical marijuana dispensary on Detroit's east side, said a number of factors keep illegal marijuana prices lower than the legal product.

"The more regulatory controls you put on the legal market, the more it activates the black market," Carter said. "Michigan has a 6% tax on medical marijuana, and an additional 10% excise tax on recreational marijuana. So that's a 16% tax, and someone buying it on the street isn't going to pay that.

"Also, legal marijuana is regulated and tested, and there are a lot of fees tagged to that," Carter said. "Growers have to pay $66,000 per year for a state license, and $5,000-$6,000 more for a city license.

"Plus, every batch of marijuana gets tested, which is expensive," Carter said. "It costs about $450 to test a batch of marijuana for pesticides and heavy metals. When the public gets their product legally, they're guaranteed a clean product, but there's a cost to that.

"On top of that, there's the overhead of maintaining a legal facility — insurance, payroll, taxes," Carter said.  "The black market has no overhead, so it drives the price way down."

Matthew Abel, senior partner of Cannabis Counsel PLC in Detroit, also serves as director of Michigan NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and is chairman of the State Bar of Michigan's Marijuana Law Section. He said until Detroit allows recreational marijuana sales, the black market will thrive.

"This crime is not being caused by marijuana, but by the prohibition of marijuana," Abel said. "What we need to do is make it available through retail stores, but the City Council has been dragging their feet on that for more than a year."

Abel added the price for legal marijuana is driven up by the lack of testing facilities.

"There’s only one lab certified to test for recreational marijuana: PSI Labs in Ann Arbor," he said. "As we get more labs coming online, the price for testing will become more competitive.

"I don't know if we'll ever be able to get rid of the illegal market, but there's no illegal market for alcohol," Abel said. "You might have people who brew their own beer, but nobody's selling that on the corner. If you make quality product available at a reasonable price, that'll keep the black market down."

Craig said illegal marijuana dealers in Detroit often use what he called "Dial-A-Dope."

"That's where the dope dealer gets a call or text, and he delivers the dope to a location," Craig said. "When they get there, that's when the violence erupts, whether it's the buyer robbing the dope man, or the dope man robbing the buyer."

ghunter@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN