More than 500 communities opt out of recreational marijuana sales in Michigan

Payne Lubbers
The Detroit News

Despite Michiganians legalizing recreational marijuana by 400,000 votes last fall, hundreds of cities, villages and townships across the state have decided to close off their communities to recreational marijuana distributors and storefronts. 

As of Wednesday, 522 of the state's 1,773 communities have opted out of the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act. Municipalities that opt out of the licensed facilities portion of the act notified the Michigan Department of Regulatory Affairs, which is responsible for the oversight of medical and recreational marijuana.

Livonia city attorney Paul Bernier said city officials did not want residents investing in marijuana businesses while the city decides on its next move.

While some residential communities like Grosse Pointe Shores opted out due to a lack of retail space, officials in larger communities say they are taking a more cautious approach to the new law.

Livonia is struggling to interpret what the law permits and fear taking action before more state regulations are implemented. 

The Livonia City Council unanimously voted to opt out of the licensed facilities portion of the marijuana law in December.

City officials did not want residents investing in marijuana businesses while the city decides on its next move, Livonia city attorney Paul Bernier said. 

"We thought it would be wrong to let people believe that it's possible and then pull the rug out from under them," he said. "We thought it would be a better approach to maintain the status quo, to intelligently look at it and figure out what does Livonia want, and what does Livonia not want." 

Livonia is one of 22 municipalities in Wayne County that have notified the state they will not be allowing recreational marijuana facilities.

"We're getting a lot of phone calls from a lot people over the last couple of years when medical marijuana came out and now the recreational marijuana," Bernier said. "We constantly field a lot of phone calls about what this city allows and what it doesn't allow."

City Council President Laura Toy said there is confusion around issues like how potent the marijuana can be, whether pharmacies will be allowed to distribute and what safety standards will be in place in the distribution process.

"(The state is) gonna want to pull back on some things or move forward on some things, and we kind of need to know what those are," she said. "We don't want to go say 'oh you can have a dispensary' or 'you can do this,' and then all the sudden the state comes in and hits the gauntlet. Are those people grandfathered in? Are they not? You've got to be fair to people."

Toy added the city does not want to form an opinion on the issue until there is more clarity from the state. 

"You don't mean to take a middle-of-the-road approach, but I don't know what else to do," she said.

The Marijuana Regulatory Agency will begin taking applications for adult-use commercial facilities Nov. 1 and could issue the first license that same month, according to agency Executive Director Andrew Brisbo. This gives communities time to review the state rules and decide if they want to permit marijuana businesses or opt out.

Plymouth City Manager Paul Sincock said his city is also playing a "wait-and-see" game with the state to better understand the rules and regulations behind the law. 

"The concern of the city commission at the time was that it was wide open and there were no rules," Sincock said. "There needed to be a significant amount of clarification about what would happen before they'd move to look at it."

Sincock said the city commission may reassess its decision at the end of the year when the city does its annual evaluation of liquor licenses. 

"We may or may not choose to address the issue at that time. We're still six to eight months away from even that. It's not even on the radar at this point," he said.

In Colorado, the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, communities can similarly decide whether to allow medical marijuana or recreational marijuana facilities, according to Shannon Gray, the state's marijuana communications specialist.

Gray said 97 of the 272 communities in Colorado have notified the state that they welcome recreational marijuana businesses. 

In February, the Colorado Department of Revenue announced that marijuana sales have surpassed $6 billion since January 2014, when commercial sales to the public began. 

Bernier said while proponents of the recreational marijuana tried to sell the proposal on its economic benefits, allowing recreational marijuana in a large community like Livonia would have little effect on the city's economy. 

"For a city the size of Livonia, there really are no economic gains through the distribution of marijuana," he said. "In the largest cities, the budgets are such that, quite frankly, the revenue is not that important. It's not much in the budget of a city with 100,000 people."

Bernier added the state has conflated the issues of decriminalizing possession and legalizing sales of marijuana. 

"Sitting in the courtroom all day long, I think the citizens of this city were tired of seeing their kids, themselves and their neighbors being convicted for possessing small amounts of marijuana," he said. 

"But I don't think it was a mandate that they wanted to have marijuana operations on Plymouth Road or Middlebelt Road. They are two completely and separate issues. They may want it, but I don't believe the vote was for that."

Drug Free Jackson, a community organization that collects information about substance use prevention for Jackson County, joined forces with Healthy and Productive Michigan, the leading opposition group against the proposal.

Now that the law is in effect, the organization has not tried to push communities to make a decision one way or the other with respect to opting out, Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist Emma Sigman said.

"For us now, it's mainly educating the public on some of the consequences that other states have seen when they legalize marijuana," she said. "We used Colorado as an example and California as an example because they did it before we did." 

Sigman said the organization is now refocusing its purpose on general marijuana education. 

"One thing we have discussed is making sure youth are educated on the effects of marijuana use before the age of 21, and how that can interfere with brain development and decision making," she said. "We've also talked about the possibility of educating the public on safe use and responsible use, along the same lines as alcohol and tobacco."

Josh Hovey, a spokesman for the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, said the group is not concerned about the number of communities that have opted out but instead will focus on helping communities that have decided to bring in recreational marijuana businesses. 

“A lot of communities are taking a conservative approach and want to make sure they understand the ins and outs of the law,” he said. “We expect many of them will begin to opt back in the near future, especially as they watch other communities that are successfully welcoming cannabis businesses and realizing that the problems they anticipated are not there.”

Hovey said he would encourage tentative communities to look at the similarities between the new law and previous medical marijuana legislation.

“If they’re familiar with the medical marijuana law, there’s really nothing new or surprising in the recreational rules,” he said. “So my question would be: what are you waiting for?”