Recreational Weed Sales Start in Michigan, Questions Linger

As cannabis kids rejoice, uncertainties about social equity, justice and industry still loom.

marijuana
Marijuana flowers provided by 1st Quality Medz in River Rouge. Photo by Lauren Jeziorski.

On Nov. 6, 2018, Michigan voters approved Proposal 1 by nearly 56%, creating the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act. In short, MRTMA made Michigan the first state in the Midwest to legalize the possession and use of recreational marijuana for adults over 21.

The law allows for possession of up to 2.5 ounces of weed while out and about, and at home, you can keep up to 10 ounces and cultivate up to 12 plants for personal use. It also made it possible for entrepreneurs to apply for recreational licenses to sell, but with a caveat – municipalities can limit or prohibit dispensaries in their jurisdiction, and 80% of them opted out – including Detroit.

A booming industry

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Cannabis Legal Group founder and principal attorney Barton Morris Jr. says because Michigan’s licensing program gives control to the cities rather than some overarching state-run entity, that makes it more favorable than those in other states.

“These cities are taking advantage of the opportunity to be able to do it on their terms in their time,” he says. Morris has been instrumental in the grassroots effort to destigmatize and legalize cannabis. He’s an official spokesperson for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol and a council member of the Marijuana Law Section of the Michigan Bar Association.

“Detroit is definitely going to adopt an ordinance that’s going to provide opportunities for recreational marijuana retail stores, but they’re doing it in their own time – and they want to do it in a way that’s right and that includes opportunities for social equity,” Morris says.

The first recreational dispensary in Wayne County to start selling to the public is Black- and woman-owned. River Rouge’s 1st Quality Medz was already established as a medical dispensary, and in January, they began stretching their recreational legs. 1st Quality also operates a provisioning center and a Class C cultivation center, which allows them to grow and cultivate up to 2,000 plants.

Owner Vetra Stephens says the process of obtaining additional licensing was smooth since she’d already wedged a foot in the door with the medical operation and built a rapport with the powers that be in Lansing. Stephens says the state has been interested in speaking with business owners like herself to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. 

“I’m at everything,” Stephens says of her industry engagement. “I stay involved as it relates to this whole process. It’s all been brand new to Michigan. I think the state didn’t want to use what Denver had in place, or California or Vegas. I think they wanted to take what they thought worked and then create new things.”

Stephens says it was disease that first drew her business partner and herself to cannabis. Stephens suffers from lupus, an autoimmune disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks normal, healthy tissue resulting in inflammation and damage to the joints, skin and other organs, and her partner had late-stage cancer. They tried Rick Simpson oil, and, Stephens says, “It helped us, both of us. Our eyes were opened to this plant.”

Rick Simpson oil is a THC-heavy extract developed by the marijuana enthusiast. His main claim is that it treats cancer, and also that it’s effective against multiple sclerosis, arthritis, inflammation, high blood pressure and other ailments.

A 2014 study published by the American Association for Cancer Research found that THC and CBD extracts coupled with radiation appeared to increase the effectiveness of the radiation against an aggressive form of brain cancer in mice. Though, a different 2004 study on human cells suggests that THC may actually increase the growth rate of certain lung and brain cancer cells. Most doctors and scientists agree that we’re a long way from making a conclusive statement about if and how cannabinoids work against cancer and other serious illnesses.

A societal shift

Stephens is a church gal with a background in theater – and she uses and sells marijuana. At play in the passing of Prop 1 is the steady relaxing of attitudes about weed – and the visibility of more users has busted any myths around the “type” of person who gets high.

In the two hours we spent at Stephens’ shop, I spotted everyone from the nerdy tech guy to the middle-aged empty nesters. “There was a stereotype,” Stephens says. “You thought, ‘Oh, he must not have a belt; his music must be this or that.’ But it’s different.” She says they get in “average people.”

The fear of and aversion to marijuana in America has racist roots. Writer Emily Dufton’s book Grass Roots: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Marijuana in America quotes a 1917 Treasury Department report that said its chief concern was that “Mexicans and sometimes Negroes and lower class whites” smoked marijuana for pleasure and were apt to assault upper-class white women under its influence.

A 2019 Time magazine article references a 1911 writing by a member of California’s State Board of Pharmacy about the fear that a recent wave of immigration from India had brought with it a demand for weed, and that this “very undesirable lot” was “initiating our whites into this habit.”

That same article quotes historian Isaac Campos, author of Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico’s War on Drugs: “Cannabis came to gain this reputation in the 19th century, when it starts to appear as a recreational substance that’s smoked in cigarettes and is overwhelmingly concentrated in some of Mexico’s most marginal environments – prisons and soldiers’ barracks. So you have this drug that’s kind of associated with danger and indigenous Mexico, then in these environments associated with violence and danger.”

It continues, “Then this mixes with a bunch of other stuff – (such as) widespread anti-alcohol sentiment especially among the elites – and that led people to think a drug like marijuana could trigger violent, savage responses in its users. Then all of this mixes with sensationalism in the press, which was always excited to write about violent incidents with the lower classes.” Especially the Black and brown lower classes.

White and Black people use marijuana at roughly the same rates, but, across the country, Black people are almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. In states with the worst disparities, so says the ACLU report, Black people are over six times as likely to be arrested. Initiatives like the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act will obviously start to combat the problem – that and a continuing calming of nerves.

Still, Michigan is one of only 11 states where cannabis is legal for recreational use and one of 33 where it’s legal for medical use. A September 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 67% of people favor legalizing marijuana; in 2000, 63% of people surveyed said that weed should be illegal.

Attorney Morris thinks the momentum will continue. In his past attempts to enact ordinances to legalize marijuana, he says, “I used to debate the opponents on a weekly basis and many of those arguments made, people aren’t even discussing anymore – like it being a gateway drug. That was one of their biggest arguments.

“I think people are now recognizing that it’s no more of a gateway drug than cigarettes or alcohol. People are now getting to understand the reality of it as opposed to just hearing propaganda.” He says other fears like increased youth use and impaired driving have been disproven.

Propaganda and fear still abound, though. Last Halloween, the Johnstown, Pennsylvania police department issued a warning to parents on Facebook: Mischievous stoners were looking to secretly drug kids with edibles disguised as Halloween candy. Cannabis fans collectively rolled their eyes and laughed hysterically. Seriously, they couldn’t stop.

As if they’d give away their edibles to costumed children. The post was apparently inspired by a drug bust in the area during which authorities recovered 394 Nerds ropes laced with THC. When pressed by Rolling Stone, the police captain said there was “absolutely no evidence” that the ropes were intended for trick-or-treaters.

Employers here in Michigan and around the country still widely set the absence of THC in the system as a condition of employment, as allowed for in MRTMA. Never mind that the weed may have been ingested weeks before the applicant sought the job or on the current employee’s day off.

Morris says, “The whole intent was to treat marijuana like alcohol and regulate marijuana like alcohol. Employers, though, do have the right to not permit their employees to drink alcohol, but nobody does that because everybody drinks alcohol.

“Over time, I think the same thing will be set for marijuana: that employers will be less and less likely to prohibit their employees from using marijuana off the job as long as it doesn’t interfere with their performance on the job.” He says, “20 years from now, it’s not going to be an issue.”

Leveling off

A key argument for the legalization of marijuana across all states is that to put the power with the people and with governments is to take it away from murderous cartels. We saw what the prohibition of alcohol did for organized crime in this country.

The drink was consumed no less frequently than before it was illegal, but introduced into the equation were gangsters like Al Capone and Charles “Lucky” Luciano who made hundreds of millions of dollars on the sale of illegal booze.

The legends of these bootleggers and their Tommy guns make for fun fodder for movies and bus tours, but the carnage was real and the era birthed black-market schemes and money laundering tactics that paved the way for other illegal operations once Prohibition ended – ones that still hang around today.

It’s true that as the United States has relaxed its stance on marijuana, Mexican drug cartels have turned less and less to trafficking illegal weed. U.S Customs and Border Protection statistics show a steady decline since 2015 in the amount of marijuana seized at the border. In fiscal year 2015 (Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015), agents confiscated 602,821 pounds of weed and in fiscal year 2019, just 289,529 pounds. But it’s not quite that black and white.

As USA Today and other outlets report, these violent gangs have instead upped the production and smuggling of heroine to feed America’s opioid appetite, one reason why some have proposed decriminalizing opioids and other hard drugs as well – but that’s a different article.

Ironically, Morris says, “The opioid epidemic absolutely played a significant role” in shifting the conversation around marijuana use and legalization. He says, “Cannabis has been proven, in areas in states where it’s been legalized, to reduce opioid-related deaths, hospitalizations and overdoses.”

The authors of a peer-reviewed 2019 article published in Injury Epidemiology analyzed 16 studies and the data pool revealed that legalized medical marijuana was associated with a “statistically non-significant” 8% reduction in opioid overdose mortality and a 7% reduction in opioids dispensed.

Additionally, “Legalizing marijuana for recreational use was associated with an additional 7% reduction in opioid overdose mortality in Colorado and 6% reduction in opioid prescriptions among fee-for-service Medicaid and managed care enrollees.”

Cannabis is not a plant without its problems, though. Several studies suggest a correlation between repeated and continued use of high-potency cannabis and an increased risk of psychosis, especially in those already prone to mental illness.

And in November, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a temporary emergency ban on all marijuana vaping products following a slew of vape-related illnesses and deaths. The governor wanted to test for the suspected culprit vitamin E acetate, a cheap cutting agent sometimes used to thicken or dilute THC vaping liquids.

“Vaping is a significant part of the industry,” Morris says. “(The ban) hit it hard because there’s tons of consumers that that’s their choice of ingestion.” He says vapes are desired, especially among women, for their discreetness and lack of odor. “This is another example of an evolution of an industry and of a controlled substance that has been significantly ignored and the opportunities for its medical benefit, but also for its safety issues, hasn’t been explored yet.”

Some are concerned whether Black Detroit will be excluded from this ever-evolving industry. More than that, perhaps, is the question of restorative justice for the thousands of Black and brown bodies locked behind bars on weed possession charges – or physically free but carrying the burden of a conviction with every job application they fill out.

A criticism of Michigan’s new law is that it made no allowance for the expungement of those records. In November, the Michigan House of Representatives passed a wide-ranging legislative package that, if passed in the Senate, could allow for the expungement of some marijuana-related convictions.

As for a seat at the table, Morris says just as municipalities were given the power to disallow dispensaries from setting up in their areas, when they do finally come around, it’ll be their responsibility to make sure more than just “new” Detroit is represented.

He says, “These cities, like the city of Detroit, really have to take control of the opportunity to ensure that there is some social equity in their ordinances, because if they don’t, there’s not going to be the diversity that is necessary and appropriate in the industry.” 

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