March 30 2016 11:28 AM

Oddly matched interests seek rules for pot dispensaries

The booming medical marijuana dispensary industry in Lansing has created an alliance of political partners easily defined as strange bedfellows. From elected officials to neighborhood leaders to dispensary operators and even the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, there is a consensus: The medical marijuana business needs city oversight.

But what such regulation might look like is unclear.

“The city cannot allow what the state prohibits,” said Joseph Abood, the interim Lansing city attorney, “and the city cannot prohibit what the state allows.”

The oddly matched interests generally agree that dispensaries should be licensed by the city and subjected to inspections to make sure the facilities meet the code requirements for commercial establishments. The chamber and City Council members would like to see the marijuana tested and labeled with origin and THC levels, and certified as free of contamination like mold and pesticides.

The Michigan Legislature may finally offer municipalities like Lansing some assistance, said Sen. Rick Jones, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“Everyone is hoping the state will come up with legislation,” said Jones. “We’ll see if that comes to a vote after the two week voting break" ends on April 12.

He’s talking about House bills that would legalize dispensaries and allow municipalities like Lansing to regulate them. The legislation would also legalize transportation of marijuana and require testing and labeling to assure quality.

Jones said what happens is that caregivers, who are authorized by law to grow up to 12 plants for each of as many as five patients, are “growing too much.” He said this is leading the caregivers to “illegally” sell the excess to dispensaries.

In 2011, after months of public hearings and negotiations, the Lansing City Council passed an ordinance to license and inspect medical marijuana dispensaries. But shortly after it was passed, the state Appeals Court found dispensaries illegal under the current Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, an opinion upheld by the Supreme Court. Then-city attorney Brig Smith declared that enforcing the ordinance would itself be illegal and ordered City Clerk Chris Swope to cease issuing dispensary licenses.

Nonetheless, the ordinance remains on the books.

Despite their illegality, Lansing has 50 to 60 dispensaries operating today.

Dispensary owners, City Council members, the chamber and neighborhood leaders all say they want a licensing system that assures that patients have secure access to safe marijuana.

“Everybody has to play by the same rules,” said dispensary owner Tom Mayes of Greenwave Connection, which recently opened at 500 E. Oakland Ave.

In a “perfect world,” he said, a system would establish specific rules dictating security measures, tracking of inventory employee education and testing of the marijuana.

Testing is key, said Mayes. Jones concurred.

“If it is going to be a prescription, you want to treat it as such,” said Jones.

Steve Japinga, director of government relations for the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, agrees.

“We want patients to have access to safe products,” he said.

Mayes said a testing requirement was important -- and not just for the amount of active ingredients like THC but for impurities as well.

“You want to be testing for microbials, like mold and mildew, as well as pesticide residue,” he said. “The only way to know about those things is testing.”

For Lansing City Councilwoman Carol Wood, testing is also a key concern.

“We know that grow operations are starting to pop up in red-tagged properties,” she said. “We want to make sure those are not causing contamination.”

Wood, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, which is tackling the issue, and neighborhood leaders have said they would like to see a limit on the number of dispensaries. That’s something Mayes and others said they oppose.

“Once you have the rules in place, it will sort itself out,” he said. He has no issue with restricting locations based on zoning rules and is not, in general, opposed to preventing dispensaries from being within certain distances of schools, religious organizations and other similar restrictions seen with alcohol related retail stores.

The Public Safety Committee is set to meet on Thursday to discuss the situation. But Abood said a draft ordinance may be delayed.

“It’s just changing so much,” he said Monday night. “There is literally something new every day or week that we are taking into account as we are working on this.”

Overcoming the legal barriers may result in the city adopting a measure similar to Detroit’s, he said. There, caregivers have to deliver the marijuana directly to patients without a middleman, as the dispensary model allows.

“The city may have to move in that direction,” he said. “I just don’t know.”