The Lansing City Council swiftly shot down placing any social equity requirements in its marijuana regulations during a heated debate Monday night.
Councilwoman-at-Large Kathie Dunbar wanted the city to give people who had been arrested for marijuana crimes, and therefore struggled to get gainful employment, a better chance to break into the industry and make money off an herb that had set them back in life.
“It’s important for us to have a social equity component in there. We’ve excluded folks most affected from any opportunities,” Dunbar said. “We have some very big players who came to town but not a lot of local entrepreneurs.”
But Dunbar immediately ran into a buzz-saw from Councilwomen Patricia Spitzley and Jody Washington.
“They don’t have the money as small-business owners,” said Spitzley, an at-large member. “You’re just putting in language in to make yourself feel good.”
Spitzley pointed out that most of the dispensaries that proliferated in Lansing before the city imposed strict regulations were owned by whites, not African-Americans.
“It is the African-American community that was disproportionately affected by marijuana arrests,” added Washington, who represents the 1st Ward. “You’re setting people up for failure. I think it’s a feel-good proposal.”
“I’m not trying to go back to the way it was,” Dunbar said. “I want to open opportunities to people who have been disproportionately affected by marijuana laws.”
Dunbar added anyone helped by a local proposal would still have to qualify for a state license, and doing that would necessitate having a strong business plan. “'Them' isn’t everybody who’s been involved with marijuana. It doesn’t necessarily mean 'I have to be black.'”
Despite the dismissive attitude of the Lansing City Council, social equity has been a key part of the debate over marijuana legalization. “I’m not sure how anyone is not familiar with that phenomenon,” said Margeaux Bruner, the political director for the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association.
It may also end up playing into the Lansing City Council elections this fall. Washington’s opponent, Brandon Betz, for her 1st Ward seat “absolutely” supports Dunbar’s position and had made opening the marijuana market to small businesses and communities and individuals hurt by the War on Drugs part of his campaign.
The successful 2018 ballot proposal actually requires state policymakers to consider social equity. Bruner said prospective marijuana businesses must describe their plans for social equity in their state application.
The state identified 19 cities across Michigan where people were especially impacted by the War on Drugs. These cities have higher historic arrest rates for marijuana offenses and usually higher rates of poverty. East Lansing is one of those 19 cities, probably because of a high arrest rate related to university students.
Lansing did not make the list of 19 cities, but Dunbar said the city could still proactively favor those who had been punished under marijuana prohibition.
City Attorney Jim Smiertka said a social equity ordinance would be stronger if citizens testified about the historic injustices of marijuana enforcement, otherwise it could be struck down in court as an arbitrary barrier to business owners’ right to equal treatment under the law.
According to a 2017 report from the Drug Policy Alliance, black Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana offenses than white Americans, despite similar rates of use. Blacks are 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but a survey of marijuana shop owners showed only about 4 percent were African-American.
State law prohibits any racial preferences in social equity policies. A discount program was set up to charge lower fees to people who’d lived in one of the 19 communities for five years, had a marijuana conviction or served as a marijuana caregiver, growing cannabis for medical marijuana patients. The discounts could lower fees for applicants by as much as 60 percent.
Dunbar suggested mirroring the state program as Lansing set up its own fees for recreational marijuana. The capital city was left out of the special discounts because it already had a low rate of marijuana arrests, before prohibition ended.
Dunbar’s policy would’ve been quite limited — 25 of the city’s initial 28 facilities that can sell marijuana were those that had been approved for medical marijuana under the old rules. Mayor Andy Schor has proposed three additional dispensaries as well as a small number of microbusinesses –– a proposal the City Council has proposed amending and limiting to just four businesses, one in each ward.
Microbusinesses are designed to give entrepreneurs a chance to compete on a small scale after bigger businesses had the advantage for the regular provisioning centers. These small businesses can grow up to 150 plants and can only sell directly to consumers.