'Cannabis equity' questions behind Detroit zoning imbroglio

Posted on February 23rd, 2018 by Bill Weinberg and tagged , , , .

cannabisA recent court decision regarding a seemingly prosaic controversy over the zoning of medical marijuana businesses in Detroit actually sheds light on issues of what some activists are calling "cannabis equity"—how questions of social and racial justice related to the war on drugs will be addressed as the industry is day-lighted.

The ruling in question came Feb. 16, when a Wayne County Circuit Court judge slapped down a voter-approved initiative that would have relaxed zoning restrictions for medical marijuana businesses in Detroit. The initiative, which passed on the November ballot as Proposal B, would have allowed such establishments in all business and industrial districts of the city. As the Detroit Free Press reported, Judge Robert Colombo Jr also partly overturned another initiative passed in November, Proposal A, that would allow dispensaries within 500 feet of another dispensary; near liquor, beer or wine stores; or child-care centers, arcades and parks.

Ironically, the rulings came just hours after Colombo dismissed two cases similarly challenging the initiatives—one brought by VK Real Estate Holdings III LLC, a company seeking a medical-marijuana license, and the other by Detroit residents Marcus Cummins and Deborah Omokehinde. These were the proverbial strange bedfellows. VK Real Estate apparently opposed the loosening of of the restrictions for fear of greater competition for licenses, while Cummins is a leader of the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition (MDCAC)—an anti-cannabis formation of cultural conservatives (at least on this question).

In any case, Colombo ruled these plaintiffs had failed to establish standing or show “special injury." His dismissal of their challenge appeared to hand a victory to Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform, the group that had placed the two initiatives on the ballot last year. But later that same day, Colombo found that the city of Detroit itself could challenge the initiatives. City attroneys argued that a zoning ordinance cannot be enacted by initiative under state law (specifically, the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act of 2006). Colombo ruled in their favor.

Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform counters that Proposal B merely amended the city's zoning ordinance to make it consistent with Michigan's Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act of 2016. This was passed to bring the licensing process up to muster after commercial sales of cannabis were shot down by the state Supreme Court in 2013—part of the very bumpy ride for the Michigan medical marijuana program first instated in 2008 but since subject to much contention. In the period between the 2013 high court decision and the 2016 law, commercial sales in Michigan were taking 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.

Jonathan Barlow of Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform told this reporter that Detroit's initial ordinance enacted in 2015 was discriminatory. "There was no influence from minority entrepreneurs who wanted access to this industry. 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," Barlow adds. "Inclusion is being preached but not being followed through on. They created an ordinance that did not consider where minorities are. That's why the majority of licenses are being sough by non-African Americans and non-Hispanics. Our goal was to create a more free-market atmosphere, where everyone would have a fair chance and the cream rises to the top." 

Barlow is calling for city authorities to convene a study group "to work toward a happy medium with participation from all communtiies." 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."

Richard Clement, another activist with Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform, wrote in an online commentary after the decision: "This decision by Judge Colombo must be appealed for the sake of democracy. The children are learning from their elected leaders that their votes can be suppressed. This is not good for...the future of our City." Noting that both the initiatives passed overwhelmingly, he is urging citizens to contact city officials and press them to "respect the will of the people."

Cross-post to Freedom Leaf

Photo by the Mad Pothead

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