By Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com Staff
ANN ARBOR — Should Ann Arbor require medical marijuana dispensaries to be set up as nonprofit organizations that give back to the community? Should the city require inspections for dispensaries, enforce “purity standards” and require all pot to be “locally grown”?
Those were among the questions asked by city officials Monday night as the Ann Arbor City Council took up a new medical marijuana ordinance for the first time.
No decisions were made on those types of regulations, which were only loosely discussed. But the council voted 10-0 to approve the first reading of a new zoning ordinance hammered out by the Planning Commission that spells out where medical marijuana dispensaries can and can’t go in Ann Arbor.
The ordinance goes on to second reading and final approval Nov. 4.
City officials still are considering additional regulations to establish licensing rules and address issues that fall outside the scope of the zoning ordinance. Those include building security and code compliance for electrical use, fire suppression, and ingress and egress issues.
City Attorney Stephen Postema told council members he’s waiting for their direction on how to proceed with a “licensing scheme” for dispensaries.
He noted the staff of the attorney’s office has been looking into the experiences of other locations around the country that have dealt with the rise of medical marijuana dispensaries — businesses he said aren’t specifically allowed under state law.
“Michigan law says nothing about dispensaries,” Postema said. “Some people believe that means no dispensaries are allowed at all. Other people disagree with that.”
That’s a dispute expected to be fought out in the courts. Postema noted that marijuana still is illegal under federal law, which he said presents a dilemma for cities like Ann Arbor that are searching for a way to regulate a drug newly legalized by state law.
“The federal government has said, as a priority, it does not encourage enforcement of medical marijuana prosecution for small amounts,” he said. “It did not say that about dispensaries or anything else, and therefore that’s the unique circumstances we’re in. We have a substance unlike anything else … and municipalities have to sort this out, and it’s unfortunate.”
Postema talked about dispensaries in Oakland, Calif., where he said medical marijuana distribution is heavily regulated.
“It was interesting that one of the chief proponents of medical marijuana who works at a dispensary there really said that, for places that are new, regulation really has been the key to success,” he said, adding it will be for the City Council to decide which regulations are put into place in Ann Arbor. “I do think that it’s not improper to look at the experiences elsewhere.”
Council Member Stephen Kunselman, D-3rd Ward, and Postema both made note of a recent article in The Detroit Free Press. That article reported that the communities across the country that appear to be managing medical marijuana distribution the best — where there are few raids, arrests or court challenges — are those that closely regulate the way marijuana is distributed.
According to the article, nearly 28,000 Michigan residents now are registered as patient users of medical marijuana.
Kunselman said he was particularly intrigued that some states, including California, now mandate that medical marijuana be distributed only through nonprofit dispensaries that give money back to charities. He said he’s interested in exploring that option for Ann Arbor.
Postema discussed with council members Monday night whether the city should require inspections of dispensaries, but no clear direction was given. Postema said some cities have instituted inspection systems, but they may be challenged in the courts.
“But they’ve instituted it because they saw growing 72 plants — and the type of lighting and the type of electrical use that you need to do to have that type of business — as a danger to the community,” he said. “I can’t answer that for you. I think that’s something for the fire department and the police department to answer for you.”
Postema noted other communities have decided to implement “purity standards” so patients who legitimately need the drug for medical reasons are not “duped” into getting a poor quality product. He also said the city might be able to impose regulations requiring that marijuana be “locally grown” to prevent out-of-state drug trafficking.
“It is also significant to me that we do understand that distributors in other states are looking very closely at what the city of Ann Arbor is doing, anticipating that they are going to come into town and come into town as quickly as possible,” Postema said.
The City Council approved a four-month moratorium on new dispensaries in August to give city staff time to come up with zoning regulations. The moratorium expires Dec. 3.
During the course of reporting on the city’s progress on the ordinance, AnnArbor.com has received a handful of phone calls and e-mails from people interested in either opening up a dispensary in Ann Arbor or becoming a patient of one. Some said they’re just waiting for the moratorium to be lifted to move in.
Council Member Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, said Monday night the Planning Commission and planning staff have come up with a good zoning ordinance.
“I think it’s well thought-out,” she said.
“I want to make sure that we do this one right because it’s brand new. The dynamic is not well known yet,” said Council Member Tony Derezinski, D-2nd Ward. “I think we’re going to have to try to be as foolproof as we can on this.”
Chuck Ream, a longtime medical marijuana advocate who recently opened a dispensary on Packard Road near Iroquois Place, addressed the council Monday night. He said he worries attempts to require licenses and permits could build a database or “hit list” that the federal government might eventually use to prosecute users of marijuana in Ann Arbor.
He also said he opposed the idea of inspections.
“Very few people would participate in the medical marijuana program if they knew their homes were going to be invaded by inspectors,” he said.
Postema clarified the ordinance awaiting council approval doesn’t have provisions for inspections. He said it appears Ream is worried about additional regulations.
“I think what he was concerned about was a licensing of caregivers and that’s certainly is part of what home occupation would be,” he said. “You could have additional licensing for a caregiver that would require fire inspections or electrical inspections. But that’s of the home occupation or the dispensary, so it’s not based on being a caregiver. It’s being a home occupation.”
Council Member Stephen Rapundalo, D-3rd Ward, was absent.[Editor’s Note: Visit the original posting of this article on AnnArbor.com to participate in the Poll associated with this piece]