Dispensary rules for pot urged

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Medical marijuana dispensaries may not exist under current state laws, but that hasn’t stopped the unregulated operations from sprouting up at a concerning rate in the state’s largest city.

As the Michigan Legislature gears up for debate over new bills to legalize and set rules for the facilities, a city-based coalition is working on a plan that will ask Detroit to adopt some regulations of its own to combat what many say has become an oversaturation.

Community, block club and faith-based groups formally organized in January as the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition. Their goal is to draft a proposed ordinance to regulate how and where the dispensaries will operate in the 139-square-mile city.

They plan to present it to Detroit’s City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan in the coming weeks, said Winfred Blackmon, the coalition chairman.

“These stores are just popping up like dandelions all over the city of Detroit,” said Blackmon, adding the recommendations being carved out aim to limit the number of dispensaries and enforce a fair but strict zoning code.

“Until the city can get some regulations, this stuff is spreading like wildfire.”

The organized push for a local law comes as a legislative hearing is expected this month for a revived bill package introduced in Lansing to legalize and establish standards for the dispensaries or “provisioning centers” as well as sales of edible marijuana products.

A similar effort last year died out during the Legislature’s lame-duck session in December, following criticism from law enforcement and health groups.

State law OK’d in ’08

Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Act, which allows residents with debilitating medical conditions to legally use the drug, was approved by the state’s voters in 2008.

Those who rely on it say it can be a lifesaver.

Spine injuries resulting from a bout with meningitis and a serious car crash left Shawn Fleming with debilitating pain.

To cope, the 39-year-old St. Clair Shores resident was taking up to 780 pills per month among prescriptions for pain and inflammatory medications, muscle relaxers and antidepressants.

The treatment left him virtually unable to function. But after obtaining a medical marijuana card, Fleming tried the treatment last year and found relief.

“I can still function, I can think, I can talk,” said Fleming, who walks with the assistance of two canes. “On prescription pills I wasn’t able to do that.”

Under the law, state residents can apply for and obtain licenses to use and grow marijuana for medicinal purposes. But there’s been no clarity on whether dispensaries have the same capabilities.

Even so, the unregulated facilities continue to pop up in Detroit and other cities across the state. Some are operating with strict standards to monitor products and treat patients; others are not.

The issue has been a key area of concern for Councilman James Tate, who says some in the industry estimate that there are more than 80 facilities citywide.

“To see some of them really flooding the city of Detroit, it’s a major problem for me,” said Tate, who says there are 16 dispensaries in his nearly 19-square-mile council district. “We don’t need them literally feet away from each other.”

Detroit, however, has not yet taken steps to shut down any of the centers. Officials instead have made an ordinance a first priority.

Ordinance in works

Tate is among those involved with a committee formed last year with representation from Detroit’s police and law departments, building officials, planning commission and others. It focused on crafting an ordinance that’s in the best interest of the community and provides safe access for patients.

The group is evaluating many areas covered in the state’s pending bills, including proximity of the facilities from one another and schools, safety procedures, record keeping, hours of operation and signage.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Hollowell said the city will craft “a defensible law” for regulation whether the state acts or doesn’t.

“The bad actors (in Detroit) are certainly not going to be able to meet the licensing regulations that will be put in place. That’s for sure,” he said. “And I think that’s what the public expects.”

Tate gave no timetable on when the proposal may be completed, saying that it’s “better right than rushed.”

The nonprofit National Patients Rights Association strongly supports a local ordinance and the proposed state legislation. It has spent the last three years educating lawmakers about the needs of medical marijuana patients and safe access to lab-tested and nonsmoking forms, including topical creams, oils and capsules.

About 30 states have medical marijuana laws and 19 have provisioning center and dispensary programs. They include Maine, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Washington, D.C., said Robin Schneider, a legislative liaison for the association.

Only a handful of Michigan communities, including Ypsilanti, Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Ferndale and Ann Arbor, have adopted ordinances for dispensaries. But at the state level, enforcement is lagging, she said.

“Michigan is way behind in the times right now as far as adding any regulations at all,” Schneider said.

Schneider estimated that as many as 80-100 brick and mortar provisioning centers are operating in Detroit, with many delivery services on top of that.

“The fact that there are so many operating right now (in Detroit) certainly indicates the need (among patients), but I think that the state needs to urgently move these bills so that the city has legal standing if they are trying to zone and regulate the businesses,” she said.

State bills also in play

Republican Rep. Mike Callton of Nashville is the main sponsor of one of the bills.

Among its provisions, Callton says his bill calls for at least annual health inspections, mandated laboratory certification that the products on sale are safe and a set of rules developed by the state’s Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department.

It also grants municipalities the ability to enact and enforce ordinances to impose additional local requirements such as zoning restrictions and facility caps.

“Every one of them (provisioning centers) will have to apply,” he said, noting that in all municipalities, including Detroit, center operators “will have to apply with the city and the city can determine who stays open and who doesn’t.”

The second measure would allow patients to consume nonsmoking forms of medical marijuana, which are not currently legal.

The bills are in state House Judiciary Committee.

Prior bills died as opponents argued that police and public health agencies weren’t permitted to weigh in, and believed the proposals would be problematic.

Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, says the latest bills mirror those debated last year.

“There were some major concerns,” Stevenson said of the laws, noting the inability of police to track the distribution of marijuana and adequately enforce who is supplying what to where.

Issues remain, he said, but added Callton has been talking with law enforcement groups and is receptive to working toward a resolution.

In the meantime, groups like the Michigan Cannabis Development Association are working to advance the responsible regulation of provisioning businesses in the state.

The group wants to prevent the proliferation of unsafe “pot shops” and supports legislation to regulate, inspect and license, says President Terrence Mansour.

The House and Company provisioning center on Seven Mile on the city’s west side greets visitors with complimentary snacks and beverages. It’s also manned with 24-hour on- and off-site security and other standards to protect product quality, the community and patients.

Mansour’s firm, Maximus Management, oversees its practices, ensuring products are appropriately measured and packaged, tested and that clients are verified and cataloged.

“Our focus is not on getting people high,” he said “It’s on getting people well.”