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No Equity in Detroit When It Comes to Cannabis

A now-defunct Detroit dispensary (photo Chastity Pratt Dawsey/Bridge)

A now-defunct Detroit dispensary (photo Chastity Pratt Dawsey/Bridge)

A recent Detroit court decision on the zoning of medical-marijuana businesses sheds light on «cannabis equity»—how questions of social and racial justice related to the War on Drugs will be addressed as the industry grows.

On Feb. 16, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert Colombo Jr. overturned a voter-approved initiative to relax zoning restrictions for medical-marijuana businesses in the Motor City. The Proposal B initiative, which passed last November, would’ve allowed such establishments in all of Detroit’s business and industrial districts. The judge also partially overturned another initiative passed in November, Proposal A, that would permit dispensaries to operate within 500 feet of another dispensary, as well as near liquor, beer or wine stores and to child-care centers, arcades and parks.

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Ironically, the rulings came just hours after Colombo dismissed two other cases challenging the initiatives. One was brought by VK Real Estate Holdings III LLC, a company seeking a medical-marijuana license that feared greater competition, and the other by Detroit residents Marcus Cummins and Deborah Omokehinde. Cummins runs the anti-cannabis Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition.

Colombo ruled those plaintiffs had failed to establish legal standing or show “special injury.» That appeared to hand a victory to Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform (CSCR), the group that had placed the two initiatives on the ballot last year. But Colombo then decided that the city of Detroit itself could challenge the initiatives, allowing city attorneys to argue that under a 2006 state law, a zoning ordinance can’t be enacted by initiative under state law. Colombo ruled in their favor.

«They created an ordinance that did not consider where minorities are.» —JONATHAN BARLOW

CSCR countered that Proposal B merely amended the city’s zoning ordinance to make it consistent with Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act of 2016, which was passed to bring the licensing process up to speed after commercial sales of cannabis were shot down by the Supreme Court in 2013—part of the very bumpy ride Michigan’s medical-marijuana program has had since voters enacted it in 2008. In the period between the 2013 court decision and the 2016 law, commercial cannabis sales in Michigan took place in a kind of legal limbo—often tolerated on a de facto basis, as authorities began to put a new regulatory regime in place.

CSCR’s Jonathan Barlow contends that Detroit’s original cannabis-zoning ordinance, enacted in 2015, was discriminatory. “There was no involvement from minority entrepreneurs who wanted access to this industry,” he tells Freedom Leaf. “The industry has been shut down to minorities by a strategy that went into the initial ordinance and the process that was in place for approval of licenses.

“We’re seeing a huge element of hypocrisy. Inclusion is being preached but not being followed through on. They created an ordinance that did not consider where minorities are. That’s why non-African Americans and non-Hispanics are seeking the majority of licenses. Our goal was to create a more free-market atmosphere, where everyone would have a fair chance and the cream rises to the top.”

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Barlow is calling for city authorities to convene a study group «to work toward a happy medium with participation from all communities.” But to press the issue, his group is also considering “a legal course of action which might eventually land this in Michigan’s Supreme Court. The electorate decided, and there is case law to support our position.”

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