Detroit ordered to accept medical pot applications

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Detroit is beginning to accept applications for medical marijuana business licenses under an order of the Michigan Court of Appeals, but the city is not guaranteeing it will finish processing any requests this week despite a looming state deadline.

A three-judge panel on Friday issued an emergency order directing Detroit to accept applications as dispensary owners rush to meet Thursday’s state deadline. Existing businesses that do turn in an application and local approval form by then could be closed and denied the chance at licensure under a new state law.

Attorneys representing several of those dispensaries are now asking the Michigan Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation for an extension as they seek approval from the city, which had halted implementation of two new voter-approved ordinances because of a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality.

“The stakes are as high as they can get,” said Michael D. Stein, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who represents more than a dozen dispensaries in Detroit that fear forced closure if they miss the state deadline.

“Basically, they put us in a disaster situation because we timely filed our lawsuit to get Detroit to accept the applications in a timely manner pursuant to the new law. This Court of Appeals decision vindicated our legal position that the city of Detroit must accept applications.”

Despite the state deadline, Stein said he is concerned Detroit will not process applications by Thursday or provide businesses with an “attestation” confirming the local community allows dispensaries, as required under a 2016 law.

Lawrence Garcia, the city’s new corporation counsel, said Detroit will comply with the Court of Appeals ruling to begin accepting applications but declined to estimate how long processing could take. The court dismissed a request to dictate specifics of how the city should review applications.

“The form is available and can be submitted, and the city is accepting it,” Garcia told The Detroit News. “But I hope those folks can be sympathetic to the city’s need to process the applications in a way that is fair and consistent and doesn’t really fall prey to what me be a temporary change in the state of the law by virtue of the way our legal system works.”

New ordinances approved by Detroit voters in November effectively repealed existing medical marijuana facility rules and prompted a lawsuit from a business group challenging their constitutionality.

Garcia said a Friday hearing before Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert Colombo Jr. could be “pretty momentous” and “clarify the impact” of the voter initiatives.

“We’re trying to do the right thing,” he said. “We’re not trying to ... skirt the law. We’re trying to do the right thing, but this is a very confusing time, and we want to do things in the most logical fashion so that we get just and equitable outcomes for everybody.”

At least 63 cities, townships and villages in 35 Michigan counties have adopted ordinances allowing local businesses to qualify for the new state licenses, according to the state, which is not counting Detroit since its new rules were suspended after the lawsuit was filed Jan. 1.

Spokesman David Harns said Monday that the Michigan Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation will not extend its Thursday deadline for applicants operating with local approval, a requirement that is designed to bring existing businesses into compliance after they had been operating without direct state oversight.

But all hope is not lost for Detroit businesses.

“In situations where it is applicable, the Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation will accept relevant court orders in lieu of the attestation,” Harns told The News.

Charles Raimi, deputy corporation counsel for Detroit, had issued a Jan. 5 memo telling city officials not to accept, process or approve any applications for a permit to license any medical marijuana facility until further notice.

“It would be improper, administratively wasteful and confusing to the public to implement the initiatives or take any action pertaining to permitting or licensing of marijuana facilities while the litigation is pending,” Raimi wrote.

But there “is no injunction” to prohibit the enforcement of the ordinance and no court has declared it unconstitutional, Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Cameron said in the Friday order directing the city to begin accepting applications.

“There is a presumption that ordinances are constitutional,” he wrote.

Five other Metro Detroit communities have adopted ordinances opting into the new state licensure law, according to the Bureau. Inkster and River Rouge in Wayne County, Hazel Park and Orion Charter Township in Oakland County and Lenox Township in Macomb County will allow licensed facilities within their boundaries.

Michigan voters approved medical marijuana in 2008, but the law did not authorize dispensaries, which had operated for years in many parts of the state without the legal blessing of the state or federal government.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed the new licensing law in September 2016. The state had initially contemplated closing down existing dispensaries but announced in November that owners could apply for new licenses with local approval.

Businesses that continue to operate without local approval past Thursday must close under emergency state rules issued in December.

“Noncompliance is grounds for disciplinary action and referral to law enforcement for unlicensed activity,” according to a Friday memo from the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.