The CP Edit: Cannabis comes of age

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Eighty-five years after the premiere of “Reefer Madness,” the 1936 anti-drug propaganda film that demonized marijuana, and three decades after the 1980s Reagan-era War on Drugs labeled it a gateway drug that would lead to a life of crime and addiction, cannabis has finally entered the mainstream, taking its rightful place alongside alcohol as an acceptable way for adults to relax after a hard day’s work. In the time between President Bill Clinton’s creative contention that he never inhaled, to President Barack Obama’s candid admission that he smoked plenty of pot in college, the cannabis landscape has changed in ways we never could have imagined just a few short years ago.

Tectonic shifts in the public perception and social acceptance of cannabis have come relatively quickly here in Michigan. Legalization for medicinal use was the first step, overwhelmingly approved by state voters in 2008. Eight years later, then-Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that finally authorized the operation of dispensaries, sparking a new retail industry to support medicinal marijuana sales. The next challenge was legalization for recreational use. Between 2013 and 2016, public opinion surveys on the question of legalizing recreational marijuana shifted from 41% in favor and 55% opposed to 53% in favor and 42% opposed. And so it came to pass that 10 years after they approved medicinal cannabis, Michigan voters took the next giant leap forward, approving adult recreational use by a 56% margin and adding rocket fuel to a burgeoning, vertically integrated industry of growers, processors, testing labs, secure transporters and retail storefronts.

Nonsensically, cannabis is still listed on the federal Schedule 1 of controlled substances, along with heroin, LSD and ecstasy, based on the dubious proposition that cannabis has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” With a new president and Congress controlled by Democrats, we hope the federal prohibition is the next wall to crumble, sparking even more robust economic activity because cannabis-based businesses will be able to leverage traditional banking and lending facilities to support their operations and growth.

Legalization of both medicinal and adult recreational use has opened a new economic frontier in Lansing.

Hundreds if not thousands of new jobs are being created at cannabis-related enterprises across the city. The payroll of these enterprises has a ripple effect — what economists call a multiplier — that results from each dollar paid to a cannabis employee reverberating through the local economy when they spend their wages at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.

Even more, numerous vacant storefronts and thousands of square feet of empty warehouse space have been repurposed to serve the needs of the industry, eliminating blight, increasing property values and generating new property and income tax revenue streams to support local government services. Fears that cannabis storefronts and other facilities would lead to more crime and impair the quality of life in nearby neighborhoods simply have not materialized. There have been a few attempted larcenies at dispensaries, but most retail cannabis establishments are as clean and safe as a liquor store, if not more.

Local governments are also getting a share of the state’s 10% excise tax on recreational cannabis retail sales. Last month, the first $10 million was distributed by the state’s Marijuana Regulation Fund to 100 cities, townships and counties across the state. Lansing received $280,000 for having 10 licensed establishments. East Lansing, with just one licensee, received $28,000. Ingham County got a check for $308,000 for the 11 licensed establishments that operate in the county’s two largest cities. We understand why Lansing and East Lansing get the state cash: They carry the burdens of licensing, regulation and enforcement for the cannabis enterprises in their communities. It’s not so clear why Ingham County should share in the windfall since its government bears none of the burdens of industry oversight.

That’s why we think it’s only fair and equitable that the county allocate those funds back to the communities from which they came. It would be an injustice, in our view, if county leaders used the funds to subsidize services like out-county road patrol for townships that have declined to allow cannabis enterprises, or to fill other holes in the county budget.

Speaking of equity and injustice, the cannabis industry has been very lucrative for those investors who have managed to obtain licenses. Very few of those licenses, however, have been granted to minority-owned concerns or used to directly benefit communities of color that have been negatively impacted by the war on drugs. In Lansing, that may be about to change. As reported in today’s edition (see page 10), dozens of cannabis licenses may soon be available in Lansing because previously awarded licensees have failed to secure their state licenses. This creates the potential for a new pool of licenses that could be awarded to qualified applicants with an eye toward enhancing social and racial equity within Lansing’s cannabis industry. 

We think Ingham County should use their cannabis windfall to fund business development programs that help minority entrepreneurs in Lansing succeed in the cannabis sector. We urge Mayor Andy Schor and the Council to open that dialogue with county leaders.

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