Update, September 27: The governor has signed legislation to allow medical cannabis shops throughout the state.
Updated on Sept 14 to reflect that the House approved the Senate’s changes to the bill.
The road to legalized and regulated medical cannabis dispensaries in Michigan has been long and winding, but may soon come to an end.
Today, the state legislature sent a bill to the governor to regulate the medical cannabis industry.
Late last year, Cannabis Wire reported (see below) on state and local efforts to do something about the proliferations of illegal and unlicensed medical cannabis shops. While a bill introduced in the House in early 2015 took until last week to clear the Senate, localities like Detroit and Lansing have taken action toward licensing some shops and shuttering others.
Also, each campaign to legalize cannabis for nonmedical use failed to place an initiative on the ballot.
Below published on December 21, 2015
The Detroit city council passed a medical cannabis zoning ordinance proposed by city councilman James Tate. Detroit is the first city in Michigan to vote to regulate and permit medical cannabis dispensaries, which have proliferated in the city even though they are not allowed under state law. Many of the unlicensed dispensaries currently operating will have to close under the new regulations.
Below published November 20, 2015
Cannabis conversations today tend to include mention of the industry, but there was hardly such thing a decade ago. Most often, cannabis was homegrown for medical use, either by a patient or their caregiver. New Mexico’s 2007 medical cannabis law was the first in the U.S. to explicitly allow for dispensaries. Two things happened in the years that followed:
- Medical cannabis legislation, bill or ballot, tended to include dispensaries (sometimes along with homegrown, sometimes as the only option). Some examples include New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
- Some states with medical cannabis laws that saw the illegal spread of cannabis shops began to regulate them–slowly. A few examples of these states, which were often called “the wild west,” include: Colorado (original law in 2000; bill to regulate shops in 2010), Oregon (original law in 1998; bill to regulate shops in 2013), Washington (original law in 1998; bill to regulate shops in 2015), and, most recently, California (first state in the U.S. to legalize medical cannabis in 1996; passed bills to regulate shops in 2015, which will be implemented over the next couple of years). To understand more about this time period during which illegal cannabis shops opened across the country, please read our Starter Kit timeline.
Today, there remains one truly wild (mid)west, and that’s Michigan. But in the coming months, the medical cannabis program that serves 181,321 patients will likely expand to address and include dispensaries–along with comprehensive regulation. This will mark the end of an era of sorts, one in which legislators and regulators often shied away from the task of crafting an infrastructure around cannabis as they looked to the feds to intervene.
Michigan’s medical cannabis backstory
A medical cannabis initiative passed in Michigan in 2008, and for years shops spread. At one point in early 2011, while reporting for the book I co-authored, A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition, I saw roughly a dozen medical cannabis shops lining East Michigan Avenue in Lansing–all within view or walking distance of the capitol building. Dispensaries filled out many otherwise vacant buildings throughout the state during these years, when the economy was in shambles; for the first time, many Americans began to see cannabis’ shades of green. These shops, along with dozens more throughout the state (if not hundreds, there has never been an official count), operated under loose interpretations of the state medical cannabis law. Two terms in particular were “enclosed, locked facility” and “transfer.” The shops stored cannabis in lockers (“enclosed, locked”) and took a cut from the sale (“transfer”) of that cannabis from a caregiver/grower to a patient.
This boundary-pushing and loophole-seeking was common in other parts of the country, as well. In Nevada, for example, cannabis could only be provided to patients at no charge, so “consultants” would charge patients for advice about cannabis and give them the cannabis for “free.” Akey issue with unregulated shops, legal headaches aside, is an unregulated product. Even in a state like Colorado, where regulations are most solid in the U.S., cannabis can be pesticide-ridden or mislabeled for potency.
A state resistant to illegal dispensaries
The legality of the storefront middleman model seen in Michigan was struck down by the state supreme court in 2013, and the ruling called these shops “a public nuisance.”
While this ruling led to the closure of some shops and a slowdown of the proliferation, the chill was short lived. One estimate suggests that today there are more than 150 shops in Detroit alone. And some of these shops now have brazen drive-through windows. Lansing also still has several shops, though they’ve been left alone. The mayor, Virgil Bernero, expressed support for legalization at the Hash Bash this April and said, “the war on marijuana has been a war on the good and decent citizens of Michigan and America.”
Then, in July, the state supreme court found that “the many inconsistencies in the law have caused confusion for medical marijuana caregivers and patients, law enforcement, attorneys, and judges, and have consumed valuable public and private resources.”
It came as no surprise that by September 2015, both the Detroit city council and the state legislature pushed for regulation. James Tate, a Detroit city councilman, proposed ordinances that month that would require shops to obtain a license or close; those that wanted a license could not be located within 1,000 feet of certain places, such as schools or churches. The ordinances would also forbid drive-thrus.
That same month, Michigan’s House Judiciary Committee passed along to the House bills to license growers, processors, dispensaries, labs, and those who would transport the cannabis; the process would be tracked from seed to sale. Edibles, which are not permitted under the current law, would be allowed. Licensing fees for businesses are being determined. The proposal also includes a 3 percent excise tax on retail sale of medical cannabis, although excise taxes in other states are typically applied to non-medical cannabis sales.
In October of this year, Tate’s ordinance on licensing passed in Detroit’s City Council (subsequent passage of the zoning ordinance is also expected). And the House passed the bills along to the Senate. (An effort to regulate dispensaries did not pass in the Senate in December 2014.)
What’s in store for Michigan’s remaining “wild west” dispensaries?
Whether Tate’s ordinances go into effect first to regulate Detroit’s illegal dispensaries, or the state passes these bills, after nearly a decade, regulation is coming to Michigan. And so, too, may legalization. At least three different groups are pushing to put legalization on the 2016 ballot: MI Legalize, Michigan Cannabis Coalition, and Michigan Responsibility Council. If polling shows that a “yes” vote on legalization could be likely, Michigan legislators might be further compelled to get the medical cannabis industry in order before being tasked with crafting rules for social use (a similar course was taken in Oregon and California). Or, recreational use legalization may pass and then legislators will address the medical side, or merge the two, as happened in Washington state.
Either way, inaction in Michigan is unlikely at this point. And, after two decades since the passage of the first medical cannabis law, regulation in the state will signal the taming of the American cannabis industry’s last wild west.