The author, a contributing columnist to Deadline Detroit, is a former reporter for The Detroit News, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer.
By Darrell Dawsey
With recreational marijuana in Michigan now legalized for anyone 21 or over and set to go on sale Dec. 1, I wonder whether some members of the Detroit City Council got a jump on everybody and already started "smoking that loud."
How else to explain the body’s recent decision to ban recreational marijuana sales in the city, at least temporarily, under the guise of pulling together local rules to regulate the approaching new industry?
Ostensibly, the ban, proposed by councilmember James Tate, was put in place to allow the council time to consider, among other things, how to ensure social equity in the distribution of business licenses and other opportunities for potential weed moguls.
As a goal, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s no secret that, for decades now, black and brown people in cities like Detroit have been disproportionately hurt by drug enforcement laws and practices, even though whites use drugs at roughly the same rate. It’s only right that, in legalizing weed, the city (as well as the state and the nation as a whole) should create fair opportunities to compete and cash in for those who’ve suffered the most from the nation’s “war on drugs.”
(As it stands now, blacks account for only about 4.3 percent of all owners/founders of marijuana businesses in the nation’s $10.4 billion weed industry, according to one recent study, while Latinos count for less than 6 percent.)
So yes, with recreational weed now legal, the same places once so eager to lock us up for smoking weed need to keep that same energy when it comes to opening up business opportunities for people of color.
Handicapped from the start
But here are the problems with what’s happening in Detroit.
The ban comes mere days before recreational weed goes on sale legally — even though Detroit essentially decriminalized the plant in 2012. Even though Michiganders voted to legalize medical weed in 2016. And even though recreational marijuana was legalized in a statewide vote more than a year ago.
Tate and the rest of the council have had more than enough time to consider “social equity” and any other issues related to regulating marijuana in the city—but in a show of procrastination that would do any indica-scented slacker proud, they decided to put it off until the last minute.
It wasn’t until October, for instance, that council president Brenda Jones requested that the city law department draft ordinances related to social equity in the marijuana business.
But even that was more immediate than anything from Tate, who as far back as June 2018, claimed to be giving serious thought to the implications of the exploding marijuana industry, both locally and abroad. (Tate is also the councilman who crafted the marijuana zoning ordinance that caps the number of dispensaries in the city and severely restricts their location, even as “beer, wine, liquor” continue as the most ubiquitous three words in retail in many neighborhoods.)
If Tate really were thinking ahead about the marijuana industry, it stands to reason that the councilman would have been more than ready with regulations on behalf of blacks, Latinos and returning citizens once jailed on weed offenses. If he were serious about ensuring equal access to Detroiters, he should have been ahead of the legalization date with a real plan, not more lip service.
Instead, days before the retail kick off of recreational marijuana in Michigan—where medical marijuana generated more than $42 million in state revenue in its first four months and where recreational weed is expected to generate more than $180 million in taxes in its first full fiscal year—the council balks. As of now, the ban is expected to run until Jan. 31, although there surely are no guarantees the council will have its act together by then.
Who pulls the strings?
I wonder how much of the council’s stalling has to do with influence from the city’s powerful, socially conservative religious leadership, which drove election-season opposition to marijuana legalization from groups like the Detroit NAACP.
Whatever the case, the preachers and social conservatives lost at the ballot box. Voters rejected the Reefer Madness hysteria and chose legalization.
Delays and bans betray a lack of respect for the will of the people. Further, not only does this decision put Detroiters who want in the game at a disadvantage, it also means the city will, at least temporarily, miss out on its portion of the 10 percent excise tax on marijuana sales, money that could be invested in infrastructure, schools and other municipal responsibilities.
As businesses in Ann Arbor and other places prepare to expand into the Detroit market—quite possibly in spite of the council’s ban, which may have come too late to keep them out—Detroiters will have to wait however long for their legislative body to play catch up on issues that policymakers throughout the state have been discussing seriously for much of the last decade.
Licensing fees, legal representation, rent, raw materials — the cost of entry into the industry will present more than enough hurdles for Detroiters on its own.
Social equity regulations should make it easier for them to compete, not be used as one more way to hold them back and keep them out.