Nov. 30 2016 11:18 AM

Lansing should nurture, not discourage, billion-dollar marijuana industry

There's a great adage in baseball: Better to trade a year too early than a year too late.

As theory, it applies to Lansing and its bumbling attempts to constrain and diminish the medical marijuana industry. Why not acknowledge that pot soon — by that I mean very soon — will be legalized and that Lansing could be the center of Michigan's marijuana industry.

Marijuana is a billion-dollar industry rapidly moving from the shadows to mainstream. For the Lansing region, which is seeking to diversify an economy too weighted toward government, encouraging this growth industry would create hundreds — perhaps thousands of jobs — and mark the region as progressive, even cool, something it now struggles with.

It's more than a pipe dream (pardon the pun). Marijuana when legalized will be heavily regulated, and the state capital is where regulation happens. Better to be in Lansing than, say, Midland or Paw Paw.

The region is home to one of the finest agricultural research institutions in the world: Michigan State University. Its expertise could help ensure that product grown here is high quality and profitable, in a very competitive market. It's important to think of marijuana as a crop and remember that MSU already helps support the state's beer and wine industries. Why not pot?

Lansing has plenty of land. Kansas City developer NorthPoint announced plans last week to purchase 260 acres of abandoned General Motors property but was coy about its plans. The sites are ideal for industrial growing operations. Apparently marijuana grown in greenhouses and indoor factories is preferable to wild-grown weed.

Lansing's central location served by two interstate highways, and an airport practiced in logistics is cited by economic development officials as one reason for businesses to locate here. Marijuana is easy to move by truck or airplane.

And finally, there is the economic payoff: jobs, tax revenue and related economic spinoffs.

With recreational marijuana already available in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska, and legalized as of the Nov. 8 election in California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts, already there is a robust and legal job market.

The job site Monster Worldwide reports that the marijuana industry in Colorado employs 10,000 people. Also, it cites reporting in The Seattle Times that trim mers can make between $12 and $15 an hour cutting leaves away from the marijuana buds, entry-level jobs that can lead to employment as gardeners or concentrate makers, with salaries between $50,000 to $90,000.

“As the industry evolves and finds its footing, jobs that simply ceased to exist (at least legally) yesterday are suddenly opening up to provide viable, legal career paths for people looking to get involved with something new and emerging,” Monster Worldwide reported.

Maybe its predictions are a bit rosy. But as a business sector, marijuana is red hot.

ArcView Market Research, which researches and promotes the marijuana industry, projects 25 percent growth for the legal cannabis market in 2016 and forecasts $22 billion in sales by 2020.

With this potential, why is Lansing doing all that it can to make the city medical marijuana unfriendly? City Hall politics.

To be sure, there are those who believe that adding marijuana to an already troubling mix of intoxicants — drugs and alcohol — will only exacerbate abuse.

But that's doesn't explain Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero's troubling push for the Lansing Board of Water & Light, the utility he controls, to begin combing customer records for homeowners using excess electricity. According to the utility, this information is private.

Bernero wants the BWL to turn over electrical usage information to the city's enforcement departments, which will use court orders if necessary to force entry into homes to check for marijuana cultivation. How very Trump. Fortunately, the city doesn't own the phone company.

Wouldn't it be better to use the BWL as an economic development tool, offering to help marijuana growers install safe and efficient LED lighting and cooling systems, perhaps with credits or incentives to defray the costs?

Then there is the long delayed and poorly drafted city ordinance to update regulation of the medical marijuana trade, which would impose punishing requirements on those seeking to comply with the 2008 state ballot proposal allowing its use. In its various forms, the city has sought to require $50,000 in assets to operate a medical marijuana business as well as $10,000 to $20,000 in licensing fees.

Consider how different this is from the economic incentives packages the city and other regional governments roll out for housing projects or industries with much slower growth potential.

Lansing still has a chance the move to the front of the line, to nurture the industry a year to early, rather than a year too late.

But it will take real leadership, perhaps policies that cost some votes in the short run. For a mayor already worried about reelection challengers, and a too often clueless Council, this may be asking too much.