Oct. 12 2017 09:49 AM

Dazed & confused
Petitions throw marijuana industry regulations, City Council into chaos

Furious at the way the Lansing City Council adopted a controversial medical marijuana industry licensing ordinance last month, pro-pot advocates created the ballot committee Let Lansing Vote and collected signatures to repeal the law.

“It was just put in there in a very undemocratic way,” said Jacob Rufenacht, owner of Kind Dispensary, 2201 E. Michigan Ave., and a backer of the petition drive. “We want to have our say.”

On Friday, the committee submitted 6,500 signatures for review and certification to Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope. The new ordinance was set to go into effect the next day, but with the signatures on hand, implementation of the ordinance was suspended while Swope reviews the petitions. The charter gives him 15 days to certify or reject the petitions.

If the group has just slightly over 4,000 valid signatures of Lansing voters, the Council will have to vote to repeal the law or place a question on the May ballot to allow voters to settle it.

The resulting freeze on implementing the new ordinance has thrown the City Council into chaos as it struggles to find common ground on one of the most controversial issues it’s faced in years.

In a special meeting Monday, Council members considered amendments to a 2011 licensing ordinance that never went into effect. That law was stopped when state courts ruled dispensaries were illegal under the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act. Now it may become the vehicle for regulating medical marijuana in Lansing.

The Council will hold a public hearing on Oct. 30 on the proposed amendments and has tentatively slated a vote on them Nov. 13.

State lawmakers adopted the Michigan Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act last year. But in order for a marijuana business to qualify for a state license under the law, a local municipality has to have a local law allowing the industry to operate in its boundaries. The state law is set to go into effect on Dec. 15. However, the state may not be ready to issue licenses until May 2018.

Rufenacht and his cohorts bristle at the memory of the Sept. 7 special meeting when the ordinance was adopted. The draft that was adopted had only been presented to the Council on that night, and for the first hour of discussion, members of the public were not privy to the contents of the draft ordinance, brought forward by Lansing City Councilwoman At-Large Judi Brown Clarke, a candidate for mayor. Despite outcry and demands from proponents and opponents of the marijuana industry for the Council to slow down, the ordinance was adopted, 5-3, the same night it was presented, with the support of the Bernero administration.

The ordinance set no limits on the number of facilities for growing, processing and testing pot or businesses to transport the product.

But it set a cap of 25 on the number of dispensaries, ultimately putting under another 35 or so, based on a City Pulse estimate. That means lost jobs and empty storefronts across the city. Moreover, because of stringent zoning restrictions, those that do make the cut may have to move, an added expense.

By moving to the 2011 ordinance, Council President Patricia Spitzley said the Council would end up creating a more restrictive law.

“That will cap all the facilities at 48,” she said. “That’s all the different types of licenses.”

The old ordinance also creates more restrictive zoning measures. The ordinance adopted last month allows establishments be a minimum of 500 feet from each other, while the 2011 ordinance restricts that to 1,000 feet. That thousand-foot buffer would also apply to schools, churches, child care organizations and parks. The newer law is a bit more flexible, allowing a 500-foot distance from some of those properties and measuring their distances in different ways. And the facilities would all be limited to the F or F-1 Commercial, H Light Industrial, or I Heavy Industrial Zoning Districts.

Rufenacht said he doesn’t understand why the Council is not considering ordinance language his group, under the name of Lansing Safe Jobs, submitted earlier this year. That ballot language was rejected when City Attorney Jim Smiertka determined it be “unenforceable” and may violate the state’s prohibition on using ballot initiatives to set zoning rules.

For his part, Rufenacht said, he wants the city to “just issue provisional licenses” and wait for state officials to complete the development of rules and regulations for state licensure, then create an ordinance.

“Why is there a rush?” he asked. Opponents of the new law said one of the “major” motivations for the repeal effort was to prevent the industry from being overrun by big money interests.

“It would effectively create a monopoly,” said Sarah Galey, spokeswoman for Let Lansing Vote, of the new ordinance cap on the number of dispensaries. “With the state allowing multiple licenses at the same location, we were concerned. It would create the conditions for a local monopoly.”