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Wednesday, June 8,2011

Can they move?

A Lansing dispensary owner is standing her ground after moving to a new location during the moratorium, even after a warning from Lansing police. Meanwhile, the city attorney is silent.

by Andy Balaskovitz

Medical marijuana dispensary owner Sharess Witherell has a lot of questions for the city of Lansing:


Who sent a plainclothes police officer to
her business, Great Lakes Superior, 633 E. Jolly Road, on May 31 to
tell her she was violating the city’s moratorium on medical marijuana
dispensaries?


Who complained to the city in the first place?


And above all, where in the ordinance does it say she could not move during the moratorium?


For 5 days, starting June 3, City Pulse
tried to reach the city attorney, Brigham Smith, for answers, with no
luck. A reporter was in the same room with him — the City Council
chambers — but Smith managed to elude him. Nor did Smith return phone
calls or text messages — or see the reporter in person when he spent
four hours waiting in Smith’s reception area on Tuesday. At least part
of that time, Smith was in his office, the receptionist said.


The issue isn’t a new one. At the
beginning of the moratorium, one businessman told City Pulse he wanted
to move but couldn’t because Smith said businesses couldn’t. Another
dispensary owner said he closed down rather than fight Smith when he had
to move because of landlord problems.


It begs the question: Why is the city
attorney seemingly unwilling to defend to the public an ordinance his
office wrote? And will he pursue charges against the dispensary because
it refuses to move?


Others have answered some questions, but not Smith.


Witherell, who is 37 and owns Great Lakes
Superior, moved her medical marijuana dispensary May 23 from 5812 S.
Cedar St. to Jolly Road — exactly one mile by car — because the lease
ran out at her old location and she said she was having problems with
her landlord. Witherell was also privy to the city’s moratorium on
medical marijuana dispensaries that the City Council adopted Dec. 6, but
she moved anyway because she said the ordinance does not explicitly say
businesses can’t move.


“We knew about the moratorium. Nothing in
their wording says anything about relocation,” Witherell said in an
interview. She later said in a statement: “We moved because of the
extenuating circumstances with our Landlord and handicap accessability
(sic), not just because we wanted to, but had to and it was never an
intent to maliciously violate any ordinaces (sic) made by the city.”


This is as far as the moratorium language
goes: “There shall be a rebuttable presumption that any medical
marihuana establishment not listed in this section was not operating on
the effective date of this ordinance. Medical marihuana establishments
recognized by the city as being in operation prior to the effective date
of this ordinance are: …” And then it goes on to list 47 addresses with
names of businesses. Some businesses have multiple addresses, or the
same address has multiple businesses. Great Lakes is listed at 5812-D S.
Cedar St.


Eight days after Great Lakes moved, a
Lansing police detective walked into the new location and advised an
employee that the business was violating the city ordinance and would
have to shut down, Witherell said.


City Clerk Chris Swope had informed the police.


“Another medical marijuana supplier
called me and tipped me off (about Great Lakes moving) and said, ‘How
did they move?” And I said they aren’t allowed to,” Swope said. He added
that he’s “getting my advice” from Smith and would not say who tipped
him off.


Lansing police Lt. Noel Garcia confirmed
Tuesday that Detective Chris Devlin visited Great Lakes on May 31.
Garcia said Swope e-mailed Police Chief Teresa Szymanski asking to
investigate the tip and Szymanski sent Devlin to confirm.


“There was no enforcement there,” Garcia
said, adding that there may never be because the moratorium expires July
1 and the City Council is planning to adopt a permanent regulation
ordinance by then. “We don’t foresee any need for enforcement right now.
This temporary moratorium is not a priority for us right now. There’s a
new ordinance in the works. Until that comes out, really we don’t know
what our role will be.”


Witherell’s attorney, Matt Newburg, said Friday that he was trying to get in touch with Smith regarding the issue.


“The (moratorium) language does not say
that in there (that businesses can’t move). I’m trying to figure out
what their (the city’s) stance is,” Newburg said. “I don’t have enough
information right now to say whether a lawsuit is going to be filed or
not.”


Newburg could not be reached for comment Tuesday.


This isn’t the first time a dispensary
has moved during the moratorium because of landlord issues. Todd
Holforty moved his business, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Club, in
mid-December from 3203 N. East St. to 6046 S. Cedar St. Before the
Council adopting a revised moratorium on April 18, Holforty told City
Pulse that he would go to court because “I don’t think they have
anything to stand on” if the city excluded the club from the revised
moratorium.


The city did not include Holforty’s club
in the revised moratorium. However, once the revised moratorium passed,
Holforty decided to shut down until a permanent regulation ordinance is
passed because “we didn’t think it would be cost effective. Fighting the
city can be quite expensive.”


Holforty said he made the choice on his own accord and was not pressured by the city.


Smith told City Pulse in late March that: “The whole point (of the moratorium) is to freeze the status quo.”


City Council members Carol Wood and
A’Lynne Robinson, who each sit on the Public Safety Committee, which is
working on the permanent ordinance, said they are following Smith’s
advice that businesses are not to move. But At-Large Councilwoman Kathie
Dunbar said she thought the moratorium “was on the number, not the
location (of dispensaries).”


“If a business is forced to relocate
because of a rental situation, I don’t think they should be penalized.
It’s not like they’re expanding,” she said. “I’ll have to check with
(Smith) to see his rationale on that.”


Rich Carl, owner of Green Cross
compassion club, said it’s a “bummer deal” that Great Lakes was having
landlord issues, but that he was under the impression businesses
couldn’t move. He wonders if Smith is using stall tactics until the
moratorium expires, a permanent regulation ordinance is adopted and this
story is a non-issue.


“Maybe he (Smith) is just stonewalling you until the moratorium passes.”

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