Jonathan Barlow believes that the medical marijuana is a cash crop that has the potential to offer blacks a golden harvest.
The legal U.S. marijuana industry—both medical and recreational— grossed about $7.1 billion sales in 2016. More than 1.2 million Americans use medical marijuana for a wide variety of medical problems, from cancer to epilepsy to depression. Michigan has 178,629 registered medical marijuana patients, a 2015 number.
State voters in 2008 overwhelmingly approved a measure to allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. That led to a set of dispensaries in Detroit so large in number that they seemingly outnumbered CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens stores combined. Barlow maintains that blacks, who comprise 80 percent of the city’s population, should own and manage them. Not suburban residents.
“Most elected officials believe that their job is to govern and not help to empower from an economic perspective,” Barlow stated. “They believe that other associations and organizations are responsible for that. They need to be part of the facilitation.”
Citizens for Sensible Cannabis Reform (CSCR) and Barlow, its spokesperson, has led an effort to place two proposals on Detroit’s November 7 general election ballot. One ballot measure aligns the city with state law. It would allow growers to set up shop within certain industrial districts. It would also allow processors and safety compliance facilities to be permitted in certain business and industrial districts.
The other measure would allow dispensaries to open longer, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. They could also locate within 500 feet of a church, another dispensary, park, liquor store or childcare center. Current law is 1,000 feet. CSCR will hold an October 26 “Investment and Community Job Fair” to discuss the ballot measures. It will take place at Northwest Activities Center, located at 18100 Meyers Road at Curtis. It begins at 6 p.m.
UP IN SMOKE
With crafty names like House of Dank, Green Genie, Starbuds, and Detroit Grass Station, the city had as many as 283 dispensaries a few years ago. Residents complained passionately at City Council meetings about the foul aroma of weed piping out of the shops on into streets, near schools, hair salons, barbershops, and medical clinics. Weed shops have been set up in former banks, strip clubs, restaurants, and even homes. There have been reports of dispensary break-ins where damage has extended to adjacent businesses. In 2015, for example, 64 percent of them were located within 1.15 miles of suburban communities and 62 percent were located within 1,000 feet of an active school, according to Loveland Technologies, a Detroit-based information data technology firm.
Reginald Venoy, an African-American Detroit resident, owns Greener Thingz, a dispensary on West Seven Mile Road near Evergreen Road. He believes that it is important for people from the community to own these shops.
“I think they should be owned by people in the city and blacks should be a part of it, “he said.
“I do not understand how we allow this to go on and act as if it’s okay,” shrugged Pastor Marvin Winans of Perfecting Church during a 2015 City Council public hearing. “It is not okay. It not okay in our community. It’s not okay in any community.”
Councilman James Tate introduced an ordinance to regulate dispensaries with respect how and where they could operate. Since the ordinance took effect on March 1, 2016, 175 dispensaries have been ordered to close; about 70 are in approval process and operating.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Deborah Omokehinde, a well-respected northwest Detroit resident, opposes the upcoming ballot measures. She says that lifting zoning restrictions will only erode neighborhoods, place dispensaries near day care centers and other schools, and compromise communities. Most of the operators are suburban residents, she argues, who have invaded Detroit and disrespected its people. She cites state regulation that makes it difficult for area residents to secure licensing.
“You can smell marijuana as you drive in your car along Eight Mile Road,” Omokehinde, a longtime parent advocate and social worker, says. There are more than a half-dozen dispensaries between Greenfield and Evergreen Roads on Eight Mile, a two-mile stretch of city land.
Andre Godwin, however, supports the ballot measures. He’s a member of the Sons of Hemp. Its mission is to “ensure the existence of diversity while fighting the systematic drug war injustices we face as healers, educators, researchers, care givers and patients of Hemp/Cannabis.” The organization wants the city to issue 50 percent of all dispensary permits to Detroiters. They also want at least 50 percent of the jobs go to neighborhood residents and military veterans. After investing considerable money, the African-American man was denied a permit last year to operate a dispensary because it was too close to a day care center.
“Kids don’t walk to day care centers,” Godwin says. “Their parents take them there.”
Last fall, the Sons of Hemp held a news conference and only one member of the nine-person City Council attended, George Cushingberry. Not a single media person showed up.
“No one wanted to come, listen and be educated on cannabis and how we as African Americans were being excluded from this industry,” Godwin stated.
James Tate opposes the ballot measures. He says that CSCR’s attempt to use black economic empowerment as a campaign issue is “disingenuous.”
“What it does is open up the market for everybody,” Tate declared about the measures. “It doesn’t touch upon blacks or Detroiters.”
Tate is looking for ways to give Detroit-based businesses a shot at operating dispensaries. At the same time, he’s also mindful of U.S. Supreme Court precedent that has rendered race-based set asides unconstitutional. In Oakland, California, City Council approved an ordinance aimed giving blacks and Latinos an opportunity to be dispensary owners. Half of those permits must go to residents who have lived for at least two years in a section of the city where a high number of marijuana arrests have occurred and where people have been incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses. Marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a 2013 ACLU Report. Oakland is about one-third black, one-third Latino and one-third white.
Tate says that there were about 30 black-owned dispensaries in Detroit.
“As a result of the ordinance, those numbers went down,” he said. “But all of the numbers went down because they were operating illegally.”