Advocates expect voter referendums to shift tide
Williamston City Councilman Kent Hall doesn’t think recreational marijuana has a place in his small town.
The 72-year-old veteran has some “strong opinions” about what he called understated consequences of smoking pot. Studies show early use could hinder brain development. Hall also claimed most users have a lower IQ. And crime invariably follows the blossoming medical marijuana industry wherever it goes, he argued.
Most of the state, which voted 56 percent to 44 percent to approve Proposal 1 in November to legalize recreational marijuana legalization — simply must’ve gotten it wrong, Hall claimed. That apparently also goes for city of Williamston residents, who voted 1,142 for Prop 1 and 848 against — at 58-to-42 percent an even wider margin of support than the state.
“Setting up stores all around Michigan sends the wrong message that it’s OK to use,” he added.
Newly enacted state law can’t stop cities from allowing homegrows and personal possession, but local officials can still block the commercial side of the industry within their borders. In Williamston, it was the only avenue left to protect the city’s smalltown charm from the stigmas associated with marijuana, officials contended.
“We just don’t need it,” said Williamston City Councilwoman Sandy Whelan. “We have these beautiful little mom and pop stores downtown. I just can’t see these fitting in. These are not mom and pop shops.
They’re here for another reason. I could be totally wrong, but I’m also concerned with the type of clientele they’d bring into town.”
Williamston is one of at least 77 municipalities statewide to prohibit recreational marijuana businesses. Unlike the medical side of the industry where townships and villages could opt in to the system, Proposal 1 loops them into the state regulatory structure by default. Officials instead need to opt out to avoid the industry’s expansion.
State law requires the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to accept license applications by Dec. 6. And with a ticking clock, local governments are tapping the brakes on prospects of new business. In Ingham County, the city of Williamston, the village of Dansville and Ingham Township have since opted out.
Delta Township last week became the first government in Eaton County to block retail sales among other facets of the yetto-be established industry. Dallas, Essex and Greenbush townships in Clinton County took a similar tack. The statistics show opposition has edged close to the 109 municipalities that opted into the medical system.
“We don’t have a police department and very seldom do we have issues where we’d need one,” said Dansville Trustee Karen Ceccanese. “People can smoke in their houses here. We just don’t want it being sold around here. We also don’t need people coming here from the outside to start these businesses. This is a small town.”
Others, such as Delta Township Supervisor Kenneth Fletcher, are hesitant to endorse the industry in the absence of state regulations. Officials can always reverse course later this year, although all seven of the communities to opt out in the tri-county region have yet to greenlight the medical side of the industry as well.
“It’s the same reason we don’t have a porn shop,” Ceccanese added. “People can go somewhere else for that.”
County election results show the majority of voters in each of those seven jurisdictions supported Proposal 1 in November.
And industry advocates contended its passage also included an expectation of local, commercial availability. Some have raised eyebrows at local prohibitions as elected officials continue to swim against the tide.
“It’s important for local representatives to pay close attention to how their constituents voted on the issue and to understand, should they go against the will of their voters, they may not be reelected,” said Robin Schneider, former finance director for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which led the fight for legalization. “We’re keeping track of votes.”
Local voters, under state law, can gather signatures and eventually trigger a referendum that could overturn local prohibitions. Schneider said that maneuver would only force residents to vote twice for what they had hoped would have been accomplished with the passage of Proposal 1. But they’re inevitable as bans continue, she said.
“It’s absolutely disrespectful to the electorate,” added Jeffrey Hank, an East Lansing attorney and pot-repreneur. “It’s a clear symbol of political failure and the ability to appreciate what this country is supposed to be about: freedom. These are the politicians that failed to change the laws, just continuing to frustrate the system.”
Hall said the city is “strapped for dough”and could use some additional tax revenue — just not from allowing medical or recreational marijuana shops to open downtown.
Besides, Williamston Mayor Tammy Gillroy said local businesses don’t want dispensaries to come into town.
“Are we going against the will of the voters? Perhaps, but I’m willing to gamble that,” Hall explained. “Some things are just worth standing up for. If someone wants to challenge me on it, please, just go ahead and do it.”
Outright prohibitions on retail recreational marijuana shops would also leave thousands of dollars in potential municipal revenue on the table. Cities and townships can charge $5,000 for application fees to handle the regulations and collect a 15 percent share of 10 percent excise taxes on all products that pass through the market.
A Senate Fiscal Agency analysis estimated the industry will generate about $26.9 million for local cities by 2023.
“People don’t want to rely on the illicit market to obtain their cannabis,” explained Rick Thompson, founding board member for the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “People are still going to have a hard time dropping the drug war hysteria, and that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Ingham Township Trustee David Harns — who is also the spokesman for LARA, which regulates marijuana for the state — said personal possession and commercial sales aren’t necessarily intertwined through the new law. Some voters simply wanted to be able to smoke pot without the fear of arrest. Not everyone supports commercial regulation, he suggested.
Ingham Township residents voted 590 in favor and 560 against, or 51 percent to 49 percent.
“Just because a community voted to pass Proposal 1 doesn’t mean they were looking to opt into the business side of recreational marijuana,” Harns said. “They could only be interested in those personal use provisions. We just approached this in that way.”
As for the possible tax revenue? “That’s not a concern for us,” Harns added.
Township Clerk Holly Speck voted with Harns to prohibit recreational marijuana sales. She didn’t know the local results of the election, but she argued the lack of police presence in the rural areas near Dansville, which votes as part of Ingham Township, made it impossible to ensure that wouldbe dispensaries are adequately patrolled by the county Sheriff ’s Department.
“The other 40-something percent (that voted against Proposal 1) needs to have a say too,” added Dansville Clerk Cheri Michalewicz. “It’s not that everyone out here is against recreational marijuana. I just don’t know if we want to have these types of businesses in the village. We’re just concerned about what comes along with them.”