COLOMA—Last November, residents in dozens of Michigan communities punished harshly for marijuana crimes voted in favor of legalizing pot. The state even launched a program that makes it easier for these towns to open a pot business.
Despite that, officials in several of these communities have said no to pot shops, at least for now. It’s a stance that’s bewildered some residents.
“What was the point in voting?” asked Jasmine Miller, owner of the Downtown Digits nail salon in Coloma, a city of about 1,400 residents in the state’s southwest corner. “The city had made up their mind.”
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As Michigan begins taking applications Friday for licensing of recreational marijuana businesses, Coloma is among 14 of 41 cities selected to participate in Michigan’s Marijuana Social Equity Program that currently bans pot businesses ‒ despite most of its residents approving a ballot measure legalizing adult-use pot.
That’s what happened in Coloma. A local official told Bridge Magazine the city’s action was not necessarily permanent. She and officials in other towns said the bans were less about thwarting popular will than about waiting for the state to develop clear regulations to guide such businesses.
“The city has opted out until the state gets its ducks in a row,” said Maureen Saltzman, Coloma’s deputy clerk and treasurer.
This gap between voter enthusiasm and officials’ hesitation isn’t unique to Coloma.
Only 21 percent of local officials statewide supported legalizing recreational marijuana in 2018, compared to the 56 percent of residents who voted “yes” last November. The reluctance among local leaders held across age and party affiliation.
Coloma, population approximately 1,500, is among 14 of 41 cities selected to participate in Michigan’s Marijuana Social Equity Program that currently bans pot businesses ‒ despite most of its residents approving a ballot measure legalizing adult-use pot. (Bridge photo by Alexandra Schmidt)
Since the recreational marijuana initiative passed, roughly 4 in 10 communities whose residents voted for the ballot measure opted out of allowing pot stores, according to an August analysis by MLive.com.
That dichotomy has special resonance in places that qualify for the social equity program, which is intended to give a boost to communities that bore the brunt of criminal enforcement of marijuana laws.
“All we can do is make sure we are giving the resources to the communities that were disproportionately impacted,” said David Harns, spokesman for the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “If the local municipalities decide that they don't want to participate in this, that's their choice.”
The social equity program offers licensing discounts to people who have lived in a qualifying city at least five years, along with other wraparound services to make it easier to start a legal marijuana business. To qualify, a city must have a poverty rate of 30 percent or higher and be in a county that had a higher than average marijuana conviction rate.
Beside Coloma, the cities whose residents voted for recreational marijuana last year but are not allowed to have pot businesses are: Albion, Coldwater, Ecorse, Hartford, Mount Morris, Roscommon, Kalamazoo, Mount Pleasant, Saginaw, South Haven, Sterling, Watervliet and West Branch.
In Coldwater, a city of nearly 11,000 residents southeast of Battle Creek, City Manager Keith Baker told Bridge the city “council has been on record” that it eventually intends to open Coldwater to pot. But like Coloma, Coldwater officials say they are reluctant to license businesses before the state “institutes its rules and they had a better idea of what” recreational marijuana will look like.
Michigan’s current marijuana regulations are temporary.
The state issued emergency rules in July, which will last six months, to give some clarity to local governments about what the future holds. These rules spell out different licenses that Michigan will offer and made it legal for medical and recreational marijuana to be sold in the same store, among other regulations.
This was enough for some communities. Niles, which also qualified for the state’s equity program, initially opted out of recreational marijuana to give the city time to craft local regulations, such as how many shops it will allow. But officials decided to opt back into recreational pot industry in October.
The state’s emergency rules “will most likely be extended one more time, from January 3 to July 3 of 2020,” Harns told Bridge.
He said the extension will give the state time to craft one set of administrative rules for both medical marijuana, which has been legal in Michigan since 2008, and recreational marijuana, “rather than having to mimic the language on both sides.” The aim is to release a single set of industry standards.
When that time comes, Coldwater will “definitely” welcome state assistance to local residents to build a recreational marijuana market in town, Baker said.
Social equity eligible cities Kalamazoo and Saginaw pushed back their licensing start dates with bans that expire in summer 2020, around the same time the state aims to have permanent regulations in place. Officials in West Branch and Albion also indicated they plan to opt in at some point, but their opt out ordinances do not have set expiration dates.
In Coloma, Miller, the nail salon owner, said she doubts the city will opt in to the recreational pot market. “A lot of older people are against” marijuana legalization, she said.
Harns, of the state licensing office, noted that a ban in social equity towns does not necessarily preclude residents there from opening a pot business elsewhere.
“If a community opts out of the adult use licensing, the people who live in that community can still take advantage of the social equity program because they are allowed to open businesses in other communities,” Harns said.
The hitch? To get the state discount and services the business must be located in another social equity community. That could prove tricky given the large distance between some communities that qualify for the program.
Harns said that, despite the initial delays, the program isn’t going anywhere.
“The social equity program isn't just a short term thing, this is something that we're going to have around for a long time” to help “these businesses not only get up and running, but that they stay successful in the long term."
Some industry players are not so sanguine.
Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, said “it would be wise for [cities] to regulate and opt in” on their own terms, or industry members may start doing launching local initiatives to legalize pot sales in these communities.
He said there are already “several” local referendums to legalize businesses “in the works,” saying local initiatives are not very expensive and predicting they will be “easy to win.
“So that would be plan B.”