Detroit council committee approves recreational dispensary ordinance

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Detroit City Council Public Health and Safety Committee has approved a second effort to allow recreational marijuana dispensaries in the city.

Mayor Pro Tem James Tate led a years-long effort to open recreational dispensaries and other cannabis businesses and extend a preference in the city's licensing to "legacy Detroiters" that the council approved in 2020, but a federal judge ruled it "likely unconstitutional" in June, due to the preferences. That case is ongoing, and will resume in September.

About two and a half hours after the 1:30 p.m. hearing began, committee Chair Gabriela Santiago-Romero, Vice-chair Scott Benson and councilwoman Mary Waters approved the ordinance.

Waters, one of two at-large council members, unsuccessfully pushed before and after the vote for a second public hearing.

"I want to do this on behalf of the people," Waters said after the vote was held.

She noted a lack of media coverage and asked for the council to do more to get the word out.

Before the vote, Santiago-Romero said that any second hearing wouldn't be held until "late April" as the council is in the midst of finalizing the 2023 fiscal year budget. 

The City Council in November 2020 unanimously approved the ordinance that gave special preference to residents under a certification the city called "Detroit Legacy." Applicants could qualify for the "legacy" certification if they had lived in Detroit for 15 of the last 30 years; lived in Detroit for 13 of the last 30 years and were low-income; or lived in Detroit for 10 of the last 30 years and had\ a past marijuana-related conviction.

U.S. Judge Bernard Friedman issued a preliminary injunction against the plan, writing in his opinion that "the city ordinance governing the process for obtaining a recreational marijuana retail license gives an unfair, irrational, and likely unconstitutional advantage to long-term Detroit residents over all other applicants."

Tate said at the time he was disappointed by the judge's order. On Monday he said he "strongly believes in" the ordinance." Though the matter is headed for trial in September, Tate said "it was not really an option" to wait for that case to be resolved." Hence the second push.

“One of the main changes in this ordinance that is different than the prior is that we do not use legacy Detroit as a qualifier for entry into being licensed or have an opportunity to be licensed,” Tate told the committee. 

"There is no such thing as a perfect ordinance," Tate added. But he said that if the ordinance became law, Detroit would "catapult" past other major cities in creating an equitable marijuana program.

Tate returned with the new proposal in February, and Monday was an opportunity for the committee to hear from the public on the new plan.

The new policy, created with the same language as the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency's social equity program, opens benefits to all residents from disproportionately impacted communities, rather than just Detroiters. 

There are 184 communities, including Detroit, identified by the agency that "have historically been excluded from ownership opportunities in the legal marijuana industry due to the disproportionate impact of marijuana prohibition, enforcement, the lack of access to capital, land, and resources," according to the new ordinance.

The new proposal creates separate tracks to achieve recreational marijuana licensing for Detroit social equity applicants as well as all others to not "pit equity applicants against potentially heavily resourced non-equity applicants," Tate said.

It encourages joint ventures or partnerships between applicants to reap the same benefits.

Because licenses are limited, the applicants — both equity and non-equity — will be reviewed using a scoring rubric out of 100 points.

It judges their business plan, site control, their due diligence to pay taxes and complete a "good neighbor" plan. It requires that businesses show how they are committed to hiring Detroiters, purchasing from local businesses, have a pricing commitment and plan to invest in the surrounding neighborhood to leave a positive impact.

Separately, applicants have the opportunity to score up to 27 additional points by giving away portions of the business to a longtime Detroiter for social equity certification.

The new proposed ordinance increases the number of limited licenses for adult-use retailers to 76, up from 75, and reduces the number of consumption lounges and microbusinesses to 30 each, a decrease from 35 each. 

Securing the city certification does not guarantee state licensing.

Licenses for growers, processors, secured transporters, safety compliance facilities, temporary marijuana events, are unlimited as in the previous ordinance. 

Richard Clement, who described himself as a staffer with State Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, urged the committee to put the issue to a vote of the people, should it run into continued legal troubles. He signed off his comment period by asking the committee to “free the weed.”

Multiple Detroiters spoke against any expansion of the marijuana business in Detroit.

Detroiter Karen Washington said the ordinance does "not represent all of the city," including the many people who don't want an "overabundance of marijuana businesses in our neighborhood."

But Mark Snipes, CEO of West Coast Meds at 8620 Lyndon — south of Fenkell, west of Wyoming on the city's west side — argued against any impression the marijuana business was out of control.

He pulled out his phone, and showed that the lobby of his business was empty.

"That's my lobby right now," Snipes said. He believes the inability to sell recreational marijuana is part of the problem. "It's empty. It's like that every day. What's happening on the other side of Eight Mile is killing me. Even with a (marijuana) grow, I'll be dying."

Benson asked for clarification about the "weed parties" several Detroiters spoke concerns of in public comment.

Tate noted that people are already free to smoke marijuana at parties in their homes.

Any marijuana event would require Detroit City Council approval, Tate said.

More:City Council member has a new plan, but will it finally usher recreational marijuana into Detroit?

The litigation over the earlier ordinance was initiated by a Detroiter, Crystal Lowe. 

Mohamed Ghaith, a partner at Scott Roberts Law, a boutique cannabis law firm in Detroit, told The News previously that there are "a lot more problems" with the ordinance than what Judge Friedman noted. He questioned if the new version the council discussed Monday was different enough.

"I don't think this ordinance will do enough to get the other side to drop the lawsuit," Ghaith said.

jdickson@detroitnews.com