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Thursday, November 4,2010

Dispensageddon

As new medical marijuana dispensaries open, Lansing moves toward a comprehensive zoning ordinance to control them

by Andy Balaskovitz and Neal McNamara

A proposed zoning ordinance to control medical marijuana dispensaries in Lansing does not worry Ryan Basore.

He’s a partner in the newly opened nonprofit dispensary on Michigan Avenue, Capital City Caregivers. Basore, an insurance agent by trade, says that he and his business partners have notified the Lansing Police Department, are located in a commercial district, and are ready to undergo criminal background checks — all requirements spelled out in the ordinance, which has been proposed by the Lansing City Attorney’s office.


“I understand why they’re doing it,” Basore said. “And I don’t have a problem with it.”


Capital City Caregivers at 2208 E. Michigan had a “soft” opening last Friday, and already has about 20 members. Basore’s business model is nonprofit: Patients pay a $25 yearly membership fee and are given access to 19 strains of marijuana at $10 to $30 a gram. Hardship cases will be allowed to pay less. The dispensary also offers edible forms of pot in hard candy, chocolate, s’mores, cookies and gum. Basore even has a plan to offer a THC-infused Thanksgiving dinner.


City Attorney Brig Smith’s proposed ordinance is still nascent, he points out, but would require dispensary owners to apply for a permit, and would allow dispensaries to only operate in commercial districts. The permitting process, in the ordinance’s current iteration, would require dispensary owners and employees to go through criminal background checks and not be in default to the city — and the permit could be taken away if an owner goes into default or commits a crime.


“The point is to define in black and white terms the areas of gray that the statutes have left,” Smith said.


On a recent day across town from Basore’s shop, Danny Trevino’s Hydroworld in Old Town is serving 14 patients their medicine. There are sheets over the window, which disguise patients who take their turns approaching a desk by the back wall. Trevino stands behind the desk over the shoulder of his “bud tender,” the man making the transaction. Trevino is rubbing his hands in excitement.


“Business has been real well without the ordinances. If everything is fine and good, why do they need to come up with ordinances?” Trevino ponders. Occasionally he calls out to the crowd to attend the May 18 Lansing City Council Public Safety Committee meeting on a proposed dispensary zoning ordinance.


Medical marijuana caregivers, who are allowed under state law to cultivate marijuana for patients, come to Hydroworld with their harvest and the business turns around and sells it to patients.


Exaggerating, Trevino says he has “a billion growers in Lansing.” Though he has three felony drug charges on his record, one for cocaine and two for marijuana, he says he has the right to be an entrepreneur just as much as the next person, he said.


“I can definitely bring business to this area,” Trevino, 38, said. “People who make these (zoning) rules probably have never smoked a joint in their life.”


Maybe so, but the ordinance could change the way Trevino and Basore do business. The ordinance could also give the Lansing Police Department the right to create security rules for dispensaries. Smith envisioned a scenario in which a dispensary would operate through boxes: Like your typical post office box, patients would go to the dispensary, which would be a wall of locked boxes; on the other side of the wall of boxes, there would be the medical marijuana provider — the medicine and money would be exchanged not face to face, but through the boxes. The medical marijuana would be kept behind the wall of boxes in another locked box.


“The statutory framework is to make sure that medical marijuana is kept in a secure facility — there are a number of ways you might effectuate that,” Smith said.


Though Lansing’s ordinance is not finalized, Smith said that he does not envision allowing existing dispensaries to be retroactively allowed to exist. Smith said that Lansing’s law was created with guidance from the Michigan Municipal League, the Prosecutor’s Association, and by looking at other cities. Lansing’s proposed ordinance resembles one enacted by Garden City, though other cities such as Roseville, Huntington Woods, Niles and Hartford have enacted ordinances. Livonia passed an ordinance that, in general, says that no business that is illegal under state, local or federal law can exist.


Michigan’s law is not written to provide for dispensaries, nor are they prohibited. In most cases, the dispensary is “stocked” by multiple caregivers and patients then proclaim the dispensary their caregiver.


Marjorie Russell, an attorney who sits on the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’ (NORML) legal committee, said under a single caregiver system like Michigan’s, it’s important caregivers work together. She also emphasizes the importance of learning from other states.


“Lawyers will always say to operate with guidance from other states,” she said. As dispensaries pop up around Lansing, Russell notes how effective Colorado’s dispensaries have been in putting the cannabis transactions right out in public.


“This keeps people out of the back allies and the black market,” she said. “People are much more likely to commit a crime there than in a storefront.”


Dispensary owners who are in the open have an obligation to be good citizens, mostly because they pay local business and sales taxes, which should excite the local government, Russell said she notices in other states.


“The truth is, this model (dispensaries) works best for everyone because it requires people to follow best practices,” she said. “When the local government starts seeing the benefits, they will want to support it too.”

When asked if she thinks dispensaries are a good business decision at this point, Russell was resolute: “Yes, I do.”

“When
you have a well-advised business (by lawyers), keeping it public keeps
the danger away,” she said. “It teaches the neighborhood that cannabis
is not to be feared.”


Russell
has visited 15 dispensaries in Colorado and California and has worked
with lawyers in Oregon to discuss dispensaries’ roles in the community.
They all share the same sentiment, she said.


Dan
Jubb has never met Russell, but he practices what she preaches when it
comes to running a dispensary. As owner of Compassionate Caregivers, a
dispensary in DeWitt Township (16101 Old U.S. 27), Jubb’s top priority
is keeping a storefront that welcomes patients.


The
glass-window storefront is decorated with a neon “OPEN” sign with
posted business hours, two large business logos and a poster that reads
“God made grass, man made booze, who do you trust?” Set back from the
entrance is a counter with three barstools, behind which is the office
and products.


Jubb thinks his dispensary’s atmosphere keeps patients coming back.


“I don’t want to go to a store with sheets over the window,” he said. “We keep a clean, well-lit office area because we’re not trying to hide our business. We just want to do things right.”


After
passing inspections by the city of DeWitt and the state police, Jubb
seems to be doing things right. Compassionate Caregivers has been open
for two weeks and has seen about 200 customers, Jubb said. Some came
from as far away as the Upper Peninsula.


He
has also consulted on multiple occasions with the Rev. Wayne Dagit, an
owner of CFCC Ministries and the Green Leaf Smokers Club, a
compassionate care club in Williamstown Township. Jubb models his
business after Dagit’s.


“We
have been saying, ‘These businesses need to be out in the open while
being as safe as possible,’” Jubb said. “It does not help to run a
shady business.”


Jubb
will not be affected by a dispensary ordinances in Lansing since he is
located in DeWitt Township. Whatever does get passed, local officials
should keep in mind businesses that strive to be legitimate, he said.


Jack
Peru is the former owner of Maurer and Parks Well Drilling, which
shares building space with Jubb’s dispensary. Peru leases the office
space to Jubb and has owned the building since 1967.


“I
have no problem with it (leasing the building for a dispensary),” he
said. “Even though I have never drank or smoked in my life.”


Past renters include a beauty shop, a bookkeeper, printers and an electric parts supplier.


Peru had never met Jubb before leasing him the space.


“I
never thought I would ever have anything to do with marijuana. If I was
walking outside I could step over a pot plant and wouldn’t even know
it,” Peru said.



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