May 11 2016 12:10 AM

Lansing City Council plans dispensary moratorium; licensing provisions likely

Lansing's City Council is poised to approve a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries in the city Thursday. It’s the first step towards regulating the businesses and, some residents and politicians hope, reining in the booming, unchecked trade.

But the moratorium may give way to a longer battle over how many dispensaries should operate, where they may locate and what regulations will be used to oversee the facilities.

Council is expected to approve the moratorium ordinance in a special meeting Thursday at City Hall, and on Friday, the Committee on Public Safety will begin the long slog of reviewing and amending a draft ordinance presented by the City Attorney’s Office.

“We’ve heard from neighborhood groups that this is something they want us to address,” said City Councilwoman Carol Wood, who chairs the committee reviewing the proposed ordinance.

The proposed ordinance would require licensing for home operations as well as businesses and would prohibit home distribution by primary caregivers under the act. It also proposes that any part of the facility, including homes, where marijuana is grown that exceeds typical usage of electricity shall be subject to inspection by the fire marshal and code compliance. That inspection would also require a listing of all chemicals being used at the facility in conjunction with the grow operation.

Aside from a battle over the number of dispensaries to allow under the law, the draft ordinance would also limit who could own and operate such facilities. Under the proposal a person convicted of a felony involving drugs would be prohibited from owning a dispensary, as would a person ever convicted of a felony assault. Other felony convictions older than 10 years would be ignored.

Applicants will also have to verify that they are not in default to the city for taxes and other fees before receiving a license. Being in default is grounds for immediate rejection of a license application. For those that are licensed that go into default with the city, the license can be revoked.

The ordinance would also require inspections of the premises and create very clear rules on how marijuana in the dispensary could be displayed and stored. It would also require labeling of marijuana to indicate the source and the patient, as well as what strain the medicine is. Also, it would also restrict facilities from opening within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare center.

Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patients’ Rights Association, said dispensary owners in general are not opposed to regulations.

“I think business owners are looking for direction from the city,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean the current draft meets approval of the owners. She said there are many concerns, including the fact the city is attempting to license caregivers in the city — something the state has already done. She also expressed concern that the ordinance’s provisions related to home operations are likely illegal.

“Our advice to caregivers, if this ordinance passes, will be to ignore it,” she said, noting the provisions would likely violate state law.

Schneider said the provisions limiting the locations away from schools makes sense “with federal law” which makes such zones “drug free.”

In December, Rejuvenating South Lansing presented the Council with a petition signed by hundreds of Lansing residents calling on it to enforce an ordinance adopted in 2011, create a new one, or shutdown all the dispensaries in the city.

The 2011 ordinance never took effect. Shortly after it was adopted, the state Appeals Court ruled that dispensaries were illegal under Michigan law. Brigham Smith, then city attorney, directed Chris Swope, the city clerk, to cease processing licensing applications and notify all dispensaries that their operation was likely unlawful.

Wood said after that decision was made, the 48 dispensaries that were written into the ordinance declined to 20, but now the estimated number of dispensaries operating in Lansing is thought to be at least 70.

The current draft of the ordinance does not include a proposed limit on the number of such businesses in the city, although it does contain a provision for such a limit, which is currently blank.

She said she favors a cap on the number of such facilities somewhere near a dozen. But Joshua Covert, an attorney who represents many of the medical marijuana dispensaries as well as patients, said such a move could seriously jeopardize patient access to marijuana.

He predicted a cap would driver up prices, making it more difficult for people who are on fixed incomes because of disabling condition to obtain medical marijuana. Melissa Quon Huber, a southside neighborhood activist, pointed out that there are 62 pharmacies in all of Ingham County, serving the county’s estimated 282,000 residents — a number supported by records of the Michigan Pharmacists Association.

According to figures released by the state Department of Health and Human Services last month, in 2015 there were 1,018 medical marijuana patients in Clinton county, 2,527 patients in Eaton County and 6,982 patients in Ingham. Those same records show there are 232 patient caregivers in Clinton, 559 in Eaton and 1,434 caregivers in Ingham.

Schneider said a limit on dispensaries is not necessarily a bad thing, but she encouraged the Council to make such limits on the higher ends of the caps that she has heard discussed, which she said ranged from eight to 24 such facilities. Failing to do so, she said, could result in “more issues,” such as increased traffic at the locations, parking woes and a potential difficulty for the dispensary to keep enough medicine in stock to help patients.

She also said that dispensaries in Lansing serve people from the state, not just mid-Michigan, because of the scarcity of dispensaries outside of Detroit, Flint, Ann Arbor, Yspilanti and here.

“I would encourage the city to vet those applying for licenses very closely,” Schneider added. “They should listen to the patients about who is offering the very best medical care.”