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Out of pot in Lansing

Legal medical marijuana drought keeps licensed shops shuttered

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Looking for medical marijuana? Lansing might not be your best bet.

Only two dispensaries have been OK’d by the state to operate in the capital city. And neither has been able to open as an apparent shortage of medical-grade bud continues to pervade Michigan amid continued state licensing delays.

“Many patients will see their local stores close, making a hardship for sick and ill individuals,” according to Rick Thompson, a founding board member at the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML. “Anyone with a heart or who has ever been sick knows this is bad for patients.”

Homegrown Lansing, 1116 E. Oakland St., and Cannaisseur, 3200 N. East St., were the only only pot shops in Lansing to net a state license in 2018. And a recent directive from state officials effectively ensured they’ll remain the only local shops that can open, at least until another round of state licenses are doled out next week.

Homegrown and Cannaisseur also remained closed this week after an administrative rule previously barred them from stocking shelves with products from anywhere other than a handful of licensed processors or growing facilities. The end-result: Lansing has entered into a total and indefinite drought of medical marijuana.

A voicemail greeting at Cannaisseur indicates the shop is “unable” to find licensed products for its patients. It also urges patients to contact Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, state legislators and LARA to demand an urgent change. A sign at Homegrown points to “new guidelines regarding licensed medical marijuana facilities” without details.

And with only 29 licensed growing facilities statewide and many still months away from harvest, concerns over a shortage in the supply chain have reached a boiling point. Attorneys have long suggested that the limited number of growing facilities are simply incapable of providing an adequate supply to some 300,000 patients.

“This is not like closing a liquor store,” Thompson added. “This is medicine. Treatment needs continuity in order to be effective. When these specialty medications are not available, it significantly affects the health and welfare of the people across the state. That should be a cause for concern for everyone involved.”

Jeffrey Hank, marijuana advocate and co-owner of Lansing-based Edgewood Wellness, said the new state rules spelled the end of the road for his weed-related business ventures — at least “until the state gets its act together.” He also apologized on Facebook to the hundreds of local patients that had relied on his expansive inventory.

Dispensaries need approval from the city and the state to operate. Edgewood Wellness, and 12 others were approved by City Clerk Chris Swope but haven’t yet reached Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Licensing Board for final approval. Hank also pointed blame to the state’s “failure” to process his application in a timely fashion.

The state set Dec. 31 as the deadline by which dispensaries that have yet to be fully licensed needed to close. David Harns, the spokesman for the Michigan Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department, said the Dec. 31 deadline on temporarily operating facilities was designed to accommodate a transition from previously enacted emergency rules to more formalized guidelines. The new rules are also to be more permanent and provide clarity on restrictions that govern the entire industry, he said.

“It’s been known for some time that we’d make this transition,” Harns added. “We can’t have some businesses playing by one set of rules, competing with businesses that follow a different set. That’s just not a model for sustainable economic activity. At some point, we needed to move over to these administrative rules.”

A total of 52 dispensaries have been licensed by the state to operate. It’s unclear how many are open for business. Harns contended LARA has taken “great pains” for months to keep license-pending facilities open while slowly phasing into a fully regulated market. But a fair industry requires fair and enforceable restrictions, he said.

For LARA, that meant every unlicensed applicant was advised to stop selling pot immediately in 2019. Recently signed legislation will make those unlicensed operations criminal after June 1. The directive from LARA isn’t criminally enforceable but threatens to curtail the licensing process for rogue applicants that continue business.

Thompson said the industry is predicated on servicing sick people — and that mentality needs to take precedence over any administrative concerns. He urged Whitmer’s administration to take action through an executive order but labeled that maneuver as “highly unlikely” amid other, possibly more pressing priorities.

As for the perceived shortage of options in Lansing? Harns said that sounds like a “local question.” The state board can only license facilities that receive direct approval from their local municipalities. Lansing ordinances call for 20 dispensaries to be licensed in the first round of applications; Swope has only OK’d 13 local shops.

With locally denied shops pursuing ordinance-sanctioned license appeals, those remaining seven licenses might need to wait until March, Swope said. Meanwhile, his office announced last month it was accepting applications for five more licenses — then turned around last week and put that process on hold until appeals are resolved.

Most approved applicants have vacant storefronts, but Swope maintained that patient access remains a priority. The goal, he said in a recent release, is to “provide the best service to their patients and safety to our neighborhoods, while employing workers at a fair wage, and bringing an influx of long-term investment to Lansing.”

Rushing through the process would only create legal and logistical challenges, he added.

“We don’t have a timeline,” Swope said.

“We’re just working through the applications. There’s obviously a whole process with the licenses with the state. Some (applicants) haven’t moved forward with the state. Others have been denied. We’ve had some ready to go and then they’ve been turned down by the licensing board.”

Swope also noted some recent state denials for marijuana businesses “sounded questionable,” shifting blame back to state officials. The politically appointed state board — with three Republicans and two Democrats — has been widely criticized for what some believe to be an unfair level of scrutiny when reviewing applications.

Thompson points to dozens of state applicants he claims have been rejected licenses for “trivial” reasons. Perhaps most notably, former Detroit Lions players Calvin Johnson and Rob Sims were denied a dispensary license last month in part because of minor, unpaid traffic tickets that Johnson had accrued while visiting family in Georgia.

Continued troubles with the licensing board’s discretion are also part of the reason Proposal One to legalize recreational marijuana specifically sought to eliminate a formal board approval process for eventual applicants, Thompson added. He also believes the Whitmer administration will continue to oppose a board-centric process.

It’s still unclear, however, how the licensing process will unfold under new state leadership. Whitmer hasn’t spoken much on the topic but she told the Detroit Free Press that one body could eventually oversee both the medical and recreational licensing process. She also recognized past “mistakes” within the existing system.

“I want to make sure we have all the facts and work with the attorney general on that too,” she told the Free Press. “One of the biggest mistakes we made in 2008 when we passed medical marijuana is that there were never rules promulgated, and that’s what led to such a disparate system. And I don’t want to make that mistake again.”

kyle@lansingcitypulse.com

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