June 15 2017 03:26 PM

Brown Clarke counters stringent pot ordinance with a more moderate plan for dispensaries

The future of Lansing’s flourishing medical marijuana industry is resting on a razor’s edge, caught in the middle of a staring contest between differing factions of the City Council.

The entire Council took its first look at two approaches Monday night. One, proposed by the Public Safety Committee, would use zoning to sharply reduce the number of dispensaries. The other, proposed by mayoral candidate Judi Brown Clarke, takes a more moderate approach.

But it’s not a fight over just medical marijuana. Council members acknowledged that it would also create a framework for how the city would regulate recreational marijuana should it be legalized.

“Yes, I think this does lay the groundwork” for how recreational marijuana would be regulated, said Councilwoman Jody Washington, 1st Ward, who supports the more cautious road. Council President Patricia Spitzley, who indicated interest in a more moderate approach, agreed.

At stake at a minimum is the fate of an estimated 60 dispensaries, some believed to have multi-million-dollar revenues. And if recreational marijuana is legalized next year, as advocates hope, the city could reaps millions in annual tax revenues from those sales.

Containing and controlling the industry as it finds its own balance is a delicate ballet among competing interests: neighbors who say the businesses are eyesores and draw too much traffic; business owners who say they just want to provide quality “medication” for their patients in a convenient location and build their businesses, and the patients themselves, who want the plethora of dispensary choices currently available to them.

And from that conflict arises two draft ordinances competing for the attention, and ultimately the blessing, of the Council.

On one side is a draft ordinance, referred to as 6D, produced by the Public Safety Committee after nearly 18 months of public meetings. On the other, a new draft called D&P 1, brought to the table Monday night by Brown Clarke, an at-large Councilwoman who is giving up her seat to pursue the Mayor’s Office. “D&P” stands for the Development and Planning Committtee, which she chairs.

Draft 6D appears to have the staunch backing of the committee chairman, Adam Hussain , 3rd Ward; At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, who chaired the committee last year; and Washington. That draft imposes strict zoning restrictions on where medical marijuana establishments can be located in the city, and how far they can be from one and other as well as from schools, playgrounds and other locations.

Browne Clarke’s version, D&P 1, loosens the zoning restrictions. For examples, it would eliminate a distance requirement between businesses and change the distance a dispensary could be from a park by measuring it from playground equipment, not boundaries.

Brown Clarke declined an invitation to discuss her proposal with City Pulse.

A City Pulse analysis of zoning restrictions contained in 6D found that five of every six dispensaries would have to shut down. The analysis identified 62 dispensaries in operation at the time. All but eight of them would be forced to close if 6D’s restrictions were adopted. It also found the zoning restrictions would cluster the industry in areas to the northwest part of the city and along the southern tier.

Neither Spitzley nor Washington said they were in favor of clustering the businesses.

In D&P 1, while some of the restrictions, like the 500-foot distance from another dispensary, are gone, it contains another obstacle: a 25-dispensary cap. That’s fewer than half of the current facilities in operation, and about half of a 48-business cap adopted by Council in 2010 in an ordinance that hasn’t been enforced since the state courts ruled that dispensaries are illegal. A new state law taking effect this year legalizes them but leaves it to local jurisdictions whether to allow them.

Brown Clarke’s proposal would save more dispensaries, but far from all. It would allow for 15 licenses in the first year and up to 10 more the next year. If more businesses met all the licensing requirements than there are licenses available, the licenses will be awarded by a random draw of names. While Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting was supposed to be the first time for all eight Council members to begin the process of vetting 6D, with the D&P 1 on the table, the process of reviewing 6D agreed upon by the Council two weeks ago was shelved.

Instead, the opening salvo in what is likely to become a weeks-long if not months long battle focused on whether to have a locally appointed commission to review and approve licenses.

Licenses would be approved by the city clerk under 6D. Denials of licenses would also have to be reviewed by the clerk, raising concerns about possible due process complaints.

In a memo to the Council, City Clerk Chris Swope said he supported the move to a commission.

“I believe the approval process would less likely be subjected to a lawsuit with a diverse commission to further document the due process,” he wrote.

Brown Clarke, whose version calls for a commission, said the committee proposal creates “an undue burden” on the City Clerk’s Office. She said a commission represents the best practices in a number of other states.

Hussain pointed out that previous drafts of 6D had included a commission, but that it had been removed out of concerns related to finding people to serve the body.

City Attorney James Smiertka informed the Council that the question of having a commission was “a political decision.”

The consensus of the Council Monday night was that if there is to be a commission, it should have seven members in order to avoid tie votes, including one from each of the city’s four wards. Each Council member would forward a name for appointment to the commission to the mayor.

The full Council will meet again as the Committee of the Whole at 4 pm. June 26 to continue its discussions.