Esky takes steps to block pot sales

ESCANABA — The Escanaba City Council took steps Thursday to block the sale of marijuana within the city limits — for now.

The “Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act” (“marihuana” being the legal spelling of the plant in Michigan) was approved statewide by voters last November and opened the doors for recreational use, cultivation, and sale of marijuana. However, the law left many open questions for communities across the state that have yet to be answered.

While anyone over the age of 21 is allowed to use, possess, or grow marijuana within certain quantities, the rules for commercial marijuana operations are still largely unknown. Communities who have stores selling marijuana will be able to receive additional revenue from the state, but there are no rules regulating the placement or operation of these establishments. The state has until Dec. 6, one year from the date the law took effect, to roll out the rules for these operations.

Much like so-called “dry communities” where alcohol sales are prohibited, cities in Michigan have the option to “opt out” of the law and ban the sale of marijuana within their borders. Opting out does not affect the ability of people within these communities to use or grow marijuana.

“Voters may have been in favor of legalizing marijuana, but not legalizing pot shops,” said Escanaba resident Matt Sviland, who, along with his wife Beth, urged the city council Thursday to ban retail sales in the city.

Escanaba voters did support the new law, then known as “Proposition 1,” last November with voters casting 2,554 votes supporting the measure and 2,332 votes against it. Council Member Ralph Blasier, a retired surgeon who has expressed his concerns over the harms caused by marijuana in the past, has taken the stance publicly in meetings and in letters to the editor published in the Daily Press that the will of the voters should be respected regardless of his personal feelings on the drug.

“A majority of the Escanaba voters are in favor of recreational marijuana, and I don’t feel that I should impose my will over theirs. Having said that, I don’t use marijuana, I don’t like marijuana, I think marijuana can cause harm, but I also believe the voters should have a say in their community,” he said Thursday.

Taking a draft opt-out ordinance created by the county prosecutor’s office, Blasier added additional language to make the ordinance temporary, including a sunset clause. Under his proposed ordinance, the rules take effect 10 days after their passage and would expire 547 days (roughly 18 months) after they took effect. This would prohibit marijuana retail sales within the city until the state could fully develop its rules and force the council to readdress the issue in the future.

“Without some sort of sunset clause, this would seem to be the ‘taking action’ to permanently — or until further notice — of opting out,” said Ron Beauchamp, who supported the additional language.

Not everyone was in favor of adding the sunset clause because with or without the language the city can opt back into the law at any time. City Attorney Ralph B.K. Peterson warned the city has a history of forgetting such deadlines, which could open them up to unwanted retail sales in the future.

“Assuming I’m alive in 547 days, I won’t forget,” said Blasier.

Should the state miss its Dec. 6 deadline to develop its own rules, commercial retail operations will be allowed to apply to local governments for the right to open their doors. Because the sunset clause extends past the state’s deadline, the city would have a buffer period to see how other communities in the state address the issue.

Despite the possibility of the temporary ban being made permanent, the city is not waiting to develop its own rules. A discussion of the zoning considerations for recreational marijuana is already set to take place at an Escanaba Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 14.

Considering the zoning implications could be important even if the council ultimately bans the sale of the drug within the city. City Manager Patrick Jordan, who has expressed in the past that he personally does not want to see retail operations in the city, noted residents could always hold a vote on the issue.

“The four-and-a-half percent of Escanaba voters that this passed by can always go out and get petition signatures of two hundred and, I think, 44 or 45 people, put it on the ballot as a referendum, and have Escanaba turn out and vote on it. They can always do that at any time if we opt out. I think that would be the people speaking very loudly one way or the other,” said Jordan.

With the exception of Council Member Mike Sattem, the council voted unanimously to move forward with Blasier’s proposed ordinance. Sattem abstained from the vote.

“Until the state guidelines come out, I’m still not going to vote on this,” he said.

Sattem also abstained from a vote on whether or not to remain opted-in to the law last December.

The approval of the council does not automatically make the ordinance the law of Escanaba. The first reading of the ordinance will take place at the next regular council meeting on Feb. 21. A second reading, public hearing, and the possible adoption of the ordinance will take place at the meeting scheduled for March 7.