It’s Friday night and the club is hopping.
Red neon signs flash, “Open,” “Darts, Pool, Big Screen TVs.”
Cars line the street and are queued up at the front door of the “lounge.”
This is the scene at the corner of Cedar and Holmes streets at the Got Meds Lounge, a medical marijuana dispensary. It’s one of more than a dozen illegal dispensaries operating openly in Lansing.
It’s party scenes like this that some say stigmatize valid medical marijuana use. Skeptics say the facilities are nothing more than fun rooms for getting high or engaging in illegal activities.
If state legislation passes in the lame duck session, there will be no more lounges or clubs. There will be provisioning centers with mandatory testing of the marijuana for safety. Towns can choose if they will allow dispensaries or ban them.
“This will be strictly regulated,” said Robin Schneider, a lobbyist for the National Patient Rights Association, a nonprofit medical marijuana advocacy group. “There will be no smoking marijuana on premises then getting in your car.”
The image of a medical marijuana dispensary should be professional and medicinal, Schneider said.
“These places should not be making a spectacle of themselves,” she said.
Operating in a haze
In the last year dispensaries have been slowly and quietly opening doors in the north, south and east sides of the city. There are still far fewer than the more than 40 that once operated in Lansing, but the number is on the rise.
“Right now they’ve been operating in a legal no-man’s land,” said Mayor Virg Bernero. “We are trying to comply with the people’s will.”
Following the ruling, Former City Attorney Brigham Smith issued a cease and desist letter to city dispensaries. At the time, the city had started a licensing program for dispensaries, but that was shut down before any licenses were issued.
Most heeded legal advice and closed, but a few never did. They have operated ever since with impunity, and new ones have sprung up.
Check WeedMaps.com or download the mobile app and you’ll be directed to more than 120 dispensaries across Michigan. You can look up their menus with names of strains like “Green Crack,” “Durban Poison,” and “Cannatonic #4.” Some even send text alerts with daily deals offering “20 percent off select connoisseur line.” The sites advertise prices ranging from $10 per gram to more than $20 per gram.
Some communities like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti cap the number of dispensaries. Others like Mason have a moratorium on dispensary applications.
“I’m hopeful that the new state law will give clarity to all parties and will give the local government proper authority to regulate these establishments,” Bernero said. “My position is that banning is not an option.”
Ingham County has more than 3,700 medical marijuana cardholders and 975 caregivers — individuals licensed to grow marijuana and assist patients. There are more than 96,000 cardholders across the state and more than 22,000 caregivers.
The recent uptick of Lansing dispensaries could be an intentional rush in order to be grandfathered from any rules the state imposes.
“I think for all the people who are running out and trying to open right now and investing money and trying to get open, they are not going to be grandfathered,” Schneider said. “They’re going to lose their investment. Getting a license is going to be very competitive. You’re going to have to show the community and the state that you’re qualified. For a while we will probably see less provisioning centers.”
Anticipation of regulation
House Bill 4271, which awaits state Senate action after it received House approval, would regulate and control medical marijuana dispensaries. The bill allows communities to choose to allow or ban the facilities. Dispensaries — to be called provisioning centers — would have to provide municipalities with test results ensuring that the medical marijuana they sell is free of contaminants. The bill would prohibit on-premises cultivation or use of the drug and generally prohibit dispensaries from opening within 1,000 feet of a school.
The Lansing City Council Public Safety Committee has been working to tighten the city’s existing ordinance in anticipation of state regulation, according to Chairwoman Jody Washington.
“None of us are against dispensaries,” Washington said. “We want to make sure they are open legitimately.”
The committee is considering capping the number of dispensaries to two to three in each of Lansing’s four wards. Washington said it’s also been looking at zoning.
“The committee could ban them from Michigan Avenue altogether,” she said.
Schneider has been attending the committee meetings and keeping the Council abreast of where the legislation stands.
“I think Lansing is being very progressive,” she said. “First, they’ve been very tolerant of the existing businesses. I think overall we do not want medical marijuana patients meeting in parking lots or on street corners trying to get their medicine.”
Schneider supports regulations that ensure safety for the patients and for the surrounding community.
“I think there are some places in operation right now that don’t have good security; most don’t have testing for safety before giving medicine to their patients, and some have public nuisance issues,” she said. “We want them to be something positive for the community, operate a responsible business, have an actual business plan.
Schneider said Colorado is one of the better models. It is legal to carry up to an ounce of marijuana and public retail stores are allowed. Broadway in Denver is experiencing a Renaissance of development around marijuana establishments, some wanting to call it the Green Mile.
Lansing is ‘pro pot’
Emerald City opened about three months ago on Cedar near Mt. Hope Avenue. It could be easy to miss except for a small sandwich board on the curb with the words “Meds, $10” written in chalk.
Owner Doug Yeo said he knows it’s risky to open but he wanted to provide a service to people in need.
“The fact that Lansing is pro pot is the only reason we are able to be open,” he said.
Still, he said he was frugal on some costs like his signage.
“I’m not going to spend thousands of dollars on a sign and any minute they could come and shut me down,” Yeo said.
Jim Herbert, CEO of Neogen Corp., who lobbied for strict regulation before the court ruled dispensaries illegal, wrote to Councilwoman Jody Washington in April:
“Once again we are seeing the ‘sprouting’ of marijuana shops along Michigan Avenue. I believe these so-called dispensaries violate federal law, state law, local ordinance and ruling of the Michigan Attorney General. I believe that it is clearly within your authority to stop this illegal activity.”
He continues: “Though I believe the illegal dispensaries are a detriment to our entire city, they are clearly a detriment along the Michigan Avenue corridor that we all have worked so hard to rejuvenate.
Herbert did not return calls for comment.
Nancy Mahlow, president of the East Side Neighborhood Association, wants the free-for-all of dispensaries to end.
“It’s not that I’m against them,” said Mahlow, recalling when Lansing had more than 40 dispensaries. “I’m against 20 up and down Michigan Avenue. There needs to be some kind of control.” (Michigan Avenue had 11 before the court ruling.)
She said allowing dispensaries to remain open without a state regulation is wrong.
“I think it’s a slap in the face not only to the citizens and the city but it’s a slap in the face to the other individuals who want to open a dispensary,” she said.
There are at least three dispensaries with identifying signage on Michigan Avenue on the east side. Mahlow said she has counted up to eight at times.
Lansing Police Chief Mike Yankowski did not return calls for comment, but he has reported in the committee meetings that dispensaries are “popping up like mushrooms,” according to Washington.
The mayor passionately defends the Medical Marihuana Act and the voters who supported it in 2008.
“My position personally is we cannot ban the facilities,” he said. “Banning is not an option.”
“Our goal is to comply with the public wish to facilitate the use of medicinal marijuana and of course to maintain the integrity of our neighborhoods,” he said.
But there has been no recent action to shut down Lansing dispensaries. And when asked about it, officials politely dance around a hot potato.
Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, vice chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said, “We should spend resources to shut them down if the police got support from the prosecutors and the court to do it.”
Bernero said, “It’s not that we’re not policing them. It’s difficult to police them.”
Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings said he hasn’t received any recent cases from Lansing police.
“It’s just like any other crime, if we get information that a crime has been committed then we prosecute,” he said.
He said he does welcome state legislation regulating dispensaries however.
“Anything could make this whole mess clearer than what we have,” he said. “Of course, I take that back: Knowing the Legislature, that may not be the case.”
A question of legitimacy
Yeo did wonder if existing dispensaries are not grandfathered in, how would Lansing choose which facility gets a license?
“Will it be a first-come-first-served kind of thing? Do I camp out in a tent outside the licensing office?” he asked jokingly.
Indeed how the city will choose, how much the fees will cost and what the future holds for the facilities that are in business remain unanswered questions.
Yeo and other dispensary operators who didn’t want to be named questioned why their business needs so much control. Are there limits to the number of drug stores in the city? Party stores?
It all comes down to a stigma with marijuana — medical or not.
City Pulse spoke to one caregiver on condition of anonymity. The person’s family doesn’t know about the caregiver’s registered status. The caregiver has children. They might not understand, much less the school system or neighbors. Despite medical marijuana being legal and legitimate, it remains socially and politically triggering.
“There is a lot of stigma involved,” the caregiver said.
Until that stigma is transformed to accept marijuana as legitimate, medication communities will remain at odds.
Even Yeo said he has family members who don’t know what he does for a living.
“I don’t understand why there’s such a bad stigma,” he said.
The result breeds an underground making all the fears of skeptics come true.
“Detroit is a different country,” the caregiver said. “It’s kinda like the wild wild West.”
The caregiver described police executing undocumented raids and keeping product and money without filing police reports.
Growing and harvesting is a costly venture that could yield nothing one year and more than the state allows the next, according to the caregiver. Dispensaries offer a location for the sale of “overages” — where excess yield can be sold so as to avoid prosecution.
Working within the law can be hard if your harvest yields more than the law allows or you’re a patient without access to a caregiver.
A search on Craigslist reveals an active if not desperate community.
“I am a certified patient who's caregiver has stopped growing. I am looking for someone new to provide meds in the East Lansing area. - Michael.”
“Medical Marijuana overages for CARDHOLDERS ONLY! - $170,175 (Lansing, EL, Holt, Mason, Okemos, Potterville areas).”
Provisioning centers are needed, according to the caregiver. They provide a vital role in helping patients and giving growers a relief valve when they run over.
Mahlow said she hopes Lansing can strike a balance that works for patients, businesses and the overall community.
“I’m invested in the east side,” she said. “I’ve lived here for over 30 years. I’m very passionate about it. I’m selfish and I want the best. This is my city. I want the best for my city. I don’t want to settle for less than anything else. It needs to be regulated just like anything else.”