2017-07-20 / News

Future of Marijuana Dispensaries, Recreational Use Discussed in Moran Township

By Erich T. Doerr

Legal marijuana dispensaries and the push to legalize recreational use of the controlled substance weren’t viewed as welcome changes during a lengthy July 6 discussion between the Moran Township Board of Trustees and Mackinac County Sheriff Scott Strait.

Petitions are being circulated to make legal the recreational use of marijuana in Michigan, as voters already have done in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. A new law that takes effect December 20 will legalize dispensaries serving people who have state cards allowing them to use marijuana for medical purposes.

With an eye toward those developments, board members met with Sheriff Strait and Deputy Isaac Harrigan to discuss existing marijuana laws and likely law changes if recreational use is approved. Sheriff Strait said he’s skeptical legalizing recreational use of marijuana is a good idea.

“I’ve seen lives destroyed by marijuana,” he told the trustees.

Medical marijuana use has been legal in Michigan since voters approved it in 2008, but the drug still is illegal for recreational use. While dispensaries aren’t yet legal, growers licensed by the state as caregivers are permitted to culture the plants for specific medical marijuana cardholders whom they register as their patients.

On December 20, however, Public Act 281 of 2016 – the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act – will establish rules under which dispensaries may sell marijuana products to medical users. There has been some confusion because dispensaries already are operating in a number of communities whose leaders have chosen not to enforce state and federal laws against them. Sheriff Strait said if those communities want to close their dispensaries, they probably must do so before the new law takes effect.

There are no dispensaries in the Straits of Mackinac area, but a few have been proposed in townships surrounding St. Ignace. The new act will allow dispensaries only in communities that pass ordinances authorizing them; no action is required in townships whose officials don’t want dispensaries. Moran’s trustees rejected an April 5 resolution that would have allowed dispensaries in the township.

“If someone demands an ordinance (allowing dispensaries), they clearly don’t understand the law,” Township Supervisor Jim Durm said.

Public Act 283 will amend medical marijuana rules to allow marijuana infused edible products and clarify what plants and plant parts can be used. Edibles could include marijuana brownies and such other products as gummy bears and lollipops.

Mr. Strait said he’s concerned about the possibility the edible products could indirectly market the drug in an appealing way to children. Mr. Harrigan said the biggest issue related to legalizing recreational marijuana also might be the increased risk that it would become available to minors.

Much of Sheriff Strait’s concern about marijuana relates to its indeterminate dosage, compared to restrictions on adult beverages that require their alcohol content to be clearly listed on product labels. He said marijuana is not as dangerous as drugs such as heroin, but potential users should know what is in it.

Marijuana gets its hallucinogenic properties from the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), whose levels are unregulated. Sheriff Strait said marijuana in the 1960s had only 1% to 1.5% THC, but today’s marijuana has been bred to feature levels of 30 to 40%. He said levels can go higher in forms of marijuana such as “dabs,” made from a powerful extract that can contain up to 90% THC.

While the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act takes effect December 20, no applications to operate marijuana facilities will be accepted by the state until Friday, December 15. Mr. Strait has doubts the five-day period will be enough to properly handle requests.

“This is going to be a mess,” he said.

Facilities only will be allowed in townships that have authorizing ordinances. The act will allow restricted distribution by growers, processors, and dispensaries. While not regulated, marijuana grown for sale at dispensaries will have to undergo testing at a safety compliance center to determine its THC level.

Moving marijuana between any two locations will require a secure transporter who is not a grower. Sheriff Strait said transport could be an issue because marijuana is valuable, yet federal laws prohibit the use of armed guards to protect shipments.

Since marijuana is illegal on the federal level, most banks and credit unions won’t accept money from businesses in the field, which can lead to additional issues. Sheriff Strait and trustee Mark Spencer said that could make it hard to track money from marijuana businesses.

Township resident Janis Holle asked the Sheriff if there are staffing regulations for dispensaries. He said all dispensary employees must be at least 21 years old and never convicted of a felony or drug-related crime.

He questioned why a Michigan doctor would prescribe medical marijuana without knowing the THC level that would be used, contrasting it with painkillers for which the precise dosage is known. He said some doctors have told him medical marijuana is “a joke.” He argued there are equally effective products which don’t produce the side effects that come with smoking or ingesting marijuana.

Supporters of medical and recreational marijuana use say one benefit is an increase in tax revenue to local and state governments. If a township approves a dispensary ordinance, for example, it can charge up to $5,000 for each license. Mr. Durm speculated, however, that a township’s costs for policing the businesses would exceed that figure.

In other places, marijuana businesses have been profitable, boosting tax collections and revitalizing vacant commercial properties that may even have been off community tax rolls. The state collects a 3% tax on marijuana business profits and returns a quarter of what’s collected to communities where they’re located.

The sheriff’s office would receive money from the county based on local marijuana sales, but Mr. Strait said he doesn’t want it because he doesn’t want the problems he be- lieves would be involved.

“I don’t need the money,” he said.

Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use in 2012 and studies have followed. Sheriff Strait said the change has not come without problems:

- Former Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey reported that legalization led to an increase in crime. Traffic deaths are also up about 48% percent and trips to the emergency room have increased 49%, with marijuana as a likely contributor.

- Calls to poison control centers related to marijuana have doubled; many of the calls involve children, including those who have eaten marijuana laced edibles.

- Today, Denver has twice as many marijuana dispensaries as it does Starbucks coffee shop locations. The price of marijuana varies depending on its potency and reputation.

Marijuana-related issues in Denver have stressed enforcement agencies, which now are busier investigating crimes related to the drug then when it was illegal - including robberies, home invasions, and murders, according to Mr. Strait. He predicted local crime would increase if dispensaries were allowed in this area and said local law enforcement agencies would need more resources to counteract it.

The Sheriff also cited a 2008 New Zealand study showing more than half the people there who take marijuana more than 400 times a year were on welfare and unemployed. The U.S. Surgeon General says studies seem to link chronic marijuana use to lower IQ scores, stunted intelligence in younger users, and increased risks for being involved in a traffic accident or developing schizophrenia.

“Why would we inflict this on our community?” Mr. Strait said.

Marijuana use in teenagers makes them more likely to report failing grades or drop out of school than those who do not use it and can cause short-term memory issues that can last for days or weeks, according to Mr. Strait. He said 7% of U.S. eighth graders, 18% of tenth graders, and 23% of 12th graders reported using marijuana in the last month in a national survey taken in 2013.

Moran Township Treasurer Sue Dionne asked whether deputies can tell whether an impaired driver used drugs. Mr. Strait said they can take a sample of the driver’s blood for testing. Mackinac County deputies are trained to look for drugged driver traits using a process similar to that for identifying drunk drivers.

Mr. Harrigan said there has been a significant increase in drugged drivers in Mackinac County in the last three years. Mr. Strait added there also have been calls about marijuana overdoses in the area.

The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan is building steam for several reasons, including a view that it’s a relatively safe drug. Sheriff Strait said marijuana lobby groups have started pouring money into the push for its legalizations. The groups typically spend significantly more than antimarijuana groups during legalization campaigns.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry on the black market,” Sheriff Strait said.

Ms. Dionne and Township Clerk Kris Vallier speculated that only growers and sellers would profit from recreational legalization. “We know where you stand and we’re with you,” Mrs. Vallier told the sheriff.

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