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Local governments across Michigan vexed over how to handle legal weed

Update Dec. 4: You can smoke pot in Michigan but not buy it. What you need to know.
Nov. 6: Michigan approves recreational marijuana. What you need to know.

Two weeks ago, Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis typed up an email to his fellow city managers across Michigan and sent it out on their shared listserv. The ask: Split the cost of hiring a law firm to guide them on how to comply with the new recreational marijuana law, if voters approve it in November.

The response was overwhelming. Within four days, 60 local governments said they wanted in.

Bridge series on ballot issues

Beginning today, Bridge Magazine is providing an in-depth look at the three statewide ballot proposals that Michigan voters will decide Nov. 6.

Throughout this crucial election year, Bridge and the nonprofit Center for Michigan are providing fact-based, data-driven information to voters about elections for Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State and other statewide and legislative offices. This includes ballot initiatives. This ballot issue series continues through Thursday.

Proposal 1 (legalizing recreational marijuana)

Proposal 2 (redistricting)

Proposal 3 (voting access)


Support for McGinnis’ plan is reflective of pervasive concern and confusion among local communities over what recreational marijuana would mean for their cities, according to more than half a dozen local leaders and experts who spoke with Bridge.

Their worries run the gamut, but all mentioned concerns over how any new policy would be regulated and implemented, and how difficult it would be to change if it goes awry.

Proposal 1, put forward by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMLA), would legalize production, sale and use of marijuana by adults over age 21 in Michigan. (Currently, only medically prescribed marijuana is legal in the state.)

Jennifer Rigterink, legislative associate at the Michigan Municipal League, said local governments have much to sort out. Their concerns vary from inconsistencies between the medical and recreational laws to implications for local zoning and law enforcement training.

“I don’t think I’ve had anyone express excitement,” Rigterink said of conversations with local leaders.

That’s a stark contrast with most Michiganders’ sentiment. Legalizing recreational marijuana is popular in the state — recent polls from the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press both found support for Prop 1 at 56 percent. Polling from earlier this year found support to be as high as 61 percent.

But a recent survey by the University of Michigan Center for Local, State and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) found that those who lead Michigan’s local governments are far less enthusiastic: While a majority of Michiganders support legalization, only 21 percent of local officials do.

And it’s not just conservative leaders who account for that gap. Nearly 70 percent of Democratic Michiganders support adult use legalization, while only 35 percent of Democratic local officials do. For Republicans, nearly 40 percent of voters approve but only 17 percent of local officials do.

“I think that’s a telling sign that these officials see a different side of the industry than most citizens do,” said Tom Ivacko, associate director of CLOSUP. “It makes me think it’s not so much a cultural thing.”

Most of the anxiety concerns regulation. In an email to his colleagues on the city manager listserv, Portland City Manager Tutt Gorman put it this way:

“This is not about ‘reefer madness’ or unwarranted concern — There is little debate that public policy is trending towards decriminalization and legalization. Pot is here to stay. However, you have to do so responsibly and in my opinion, this ballot proposal is reckless. To be perfectly clear, legalizing recreational marihuana or decriminalization is not reckless — but rather the process.”

Missed opportunity

Local leaders’ concerns over regulation might sound familiar.

The Republican-led Michigan Legislature attempted to preempt and pass the popular ballot measure in the spring ‒ not because GOP leaders favored it, but because it would have provided a chance to ensure stricter regulations than would be possible if the measure passes at the polls.

“I’ve been challenging my folks in my district, one of the most Republican districts in the state, and they're asking me, ‘Why should we do this?’” state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told Bridge in late May as the legislature was considering voting on the proposal. “I say, ‘We have regulated alcohol, we have regulated tobacco. If this goes on the ballot and passes we virtually have unregulated marijuana.’”

But the Republican-led state house couldn’t rally the votes, so it headed to the ballot as-is. To amend it, legislators would need a three-quarters majority vote.

Legalization proponents argue that the proposed law was written to fit in neatly with existing regulations for the state’s medical cannabis industry and to avoid the kind of complications that arose with the state’s medical marijuana legalization roll-out, which first became legal in 2008 but did not reach current regulation standards (the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, or MMFLA) until 2016.

“If you look at the details of our proposal and compare it with what the legislature passed in 2016, we used that as a model,” said Josh Hovey, spokesman for the CRMLA. “We also have the benefit of looking at what other states have come before us and using some of those best practices and learning those lessons.”

Hovey said the fact that any legislative changes to the ballot measure would require a three-quarters majority is a good thing — it would require significant compromise between the two major state parties and ensure any changes actually improve the law.

Multiple city leaders told Bridge, however, they think legislators missed an opportunity to iron out details with a simple majority had Lansing passed the law last spring.  

“There are a lot of issues with the ballot language as written that would become law and there’s really no good way to fix it once it is a law,” said Suzanne Schulz, Director of Design, Development, and Community Engagement for Grand Rapids. “With the legislature deciding to decline earlier this year on taking action on it, it really is going to make things very difficult in the future… just from a regulatory standpoint.”

‘Lots to be anxious about’

Local leaders say they worry that the regulatory framework eventually created for medical marijuana isn’t a perfect model for recreational pot, if it passes.

A top concern, according to Rigterink of the Municipal League: Local governments have to opt-in for allowing medical marijuana dispensaries, but the opposite would be true if recreational pot is passed; local governments would have to opt-out if they don’t want weed stores in their towns.    

She said there would also be inconsistencies in the business application process for medical marijuana versus recreational pot, along with different definitions and licensing requirements.

“Not being consistent between the two acts allows for confusion and other things to possibly happen when they’re regulating the same product, one medical and one recreational. But it’s still marijuana,” Rigterink said.

Prop 1 would allow local governments to regulate where, when and how recreational pot facilities operate. But the ballot measure forbids towns from implementing rules considered so impractical that a “reasonably prudent” business person would not operate the marijuana business.

“So they can challenge any rule legally if a person considers the rule is going to require them too much time or too much money,” Rigterink said. “That is going to open up municipalities to a lot of liability issues.”

Doug Mains, an attorney at law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn who helped draft the petition language, said this part of the proposal would mostly be relevant for the state instead of local governments. Five other states have the same language in their law, he said, and only one lawsuit has ever been filed under it.

"I don’t see it as being much of a concern for municipalities in practice,” Mains said.

Some local leaders say they also worry about how they’d have to change zoning to accommodate businesses, train police to enforce new laws, develop methods for drug testing public employees and make sure laws are minimizing the risk that children will be exposed to pot.

Advocates of Prop 1 estimate its passage would bring in $520 million in combined tax revenue over the first five years. But communities that don’t allow pot businesses will not receive a portion of that revenue — leaving leaders of smaller municipalities who do not expect their citizens to allow facilities feeling like they’d have to take on the burden of regulation and employee training (including law enforcement) without the revenue benefits.

Ivacko of CLOSUP said this cost-benefit concern was perhaps one reason why only a small percentage of cities (8 percent) opted in to allow medical marijuana facilities. Many Michigan towns and cities are still struggling financially with few options for raising money. So when his group dove into its study of local governments’ attitudes toward pot, Ivacko expected local leaders to support medical marijuana as a possible new source of revenue.

“But we didn't see much of that. Some local leaders said even if they were able to tap into a new revenue stream that just simply wasn't going to be enough to make it worth the troubles that they would get, whether it was the need to update their planning and zoning ordinances, to regulate businesses once they’ve opted in and to enforce laws around it,” Ivacko said.

“They just thought the potential revenue wasn’t going to be enough to make that all worthwhile.”

Even larger cities — which are more welcoming of medical marijuana facilities and may be open to recreational ones — share concerns.

Grand Rapids may choose to allow recreational facilities should Prop 1 pass. However, it is one of the only communities in West Michigan interested.

“What impact does that have on traffic for our business districts and then oversaturation of use in any particular business district?” Schulz of Grand Rapids asked.

Grand Rapids’ city commissioners also want to make sure any marijuana policy takes into account that pot criminalization has historically resulted in disproportionate arrests within communities of color.

“How can we think of the industry in a way that it could be beneficial to this community… to get at this really disparate impact on communities of color for marijuana policy, and trying to turn it into a benefit so that not only white wealthy people and corporations are benefiting from it,” Schulz said.

The city is already exploring solutions for zoning and other regulations that could apply to medical and recreational marijuana, Schulz said. Some local officials see it as a business opportunity, while others see it as a burden.

“There are a lot of things to be anxious about.”

Marcus Peccia, Cadillac city manager, said a lot of communities, his included, are taking a “wait and see approach” to see whether Prop 1 passes and learn more about how medical marijuana regulation is panning out in other towns.

Others, like Grand Haven’s Pat McGinnis and 60 other cities, are joining forces to prepare just in case. Hence, hiring the lawyers.

“It’s better to be ready and not need it than need it and not be ready,” McGinnis said. “Because if we wait for it to pass and haven’t done our homework and aren’t ready to take whatever steps we need to take, that would be tragic.”

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