City looks to delay marijuana decision
ESCANABA — As the debate about whether or not to allow marijuana establishments in the city rages on, the Escanaba City Council recently decided the fate of the dispensaries and other marijuana-oriented businesses is a decision for another day.
During Thursday’s city council meeting, the council voted to move forward with an ordinance to extend the city’s prior prohibition on marijuana establishments until Sept. 16, 2022. Residents will have one more opportunity to voice their support for or opposition to the two year moratorium during a public hearing at the Aug. 20 meeting. The council will officially approve or reject the ordinance at that time.
This would be the second time the city has put a sunset clause in place on the moratorium. The prior prohibition was put in place on March 22, 2019 and was set to expire Sept. 19. The sunset clause in the original ordinance was suggested by Council Member Ralph Blasier, who argued it would force the council to readdress the issue after preliminary rules were issued by the state and the city could see how other communities handled the issue.
“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,” said Blasier at the Feb. 7, 2019 meeting, where he suggested his 547-day-long ordinance.
During Thursday’s city council meeting council members weighed the two-year extension of the rule. After hearing public comment arguing the extension was too long, Council Member Tyler DuBord made a motion to shorten the sunset clause to a single year. The motion died for lack of a second, and ultimately the council approved moving forward with the two-year ordinance with only DuBord dissenting.
The issue has been a near-constant talking point during public comment periods at meetings, with citizens concerned over the effects on the community and Escanaba youth butting heads with marijuana growers, users, and hopeful entrepreneurs.
Supporters and detractors have given off-the-cuff remarks, read from prepared statements, and cited various sources proclaiming the harm or extolling the benefits of the substance, which was only legalized two years ago. During Thursday’s meeting, one couple offered to play audio from a secret recording they took while visiting a dispensary in Negaunee — a request denied after the city’s attorney raised concerns broadcasting the audio during a livestreamed virtual meeting could open the city up to lawsuits.
Escanaba was one of only two communities in Delta County that voted in favor of the legalization of marijuana in 2018, the other being Fairbanks Township. However, multiple residents have said that just because it was legalized for use doesn’t mean the community wants the drug sold within the city limits.
Despite the many reasons detractors cite when arguing against marijuana establishments, marijuana establishments do provide some benefits for the cities that are willing to let them in their borders. Communities that allow the sale and commercial production of marijuana have access to a pool of money collected through taxes on the substance, but the amount a community can collect is directly tied to how many retail establishments and “marihuana microbusinesses” — persons licensed to cultivate not more than 150 plants, process and package marijuana, and sell or otherwise transfer marijuana to individuals age 21 or older — exist within its boundaries.
Some of the money in the state’s fund is allocated for operations and some is for clinical trials researching the efficacy of marijuana as a treatment to reduce suicide among military veterans. The unexpended balances are allocated 15% to municipalities where retail stores and microbusinesses are located, proportional to the number of those businesses; 15% is distributed to counties under the same requirements as municipalities; 35% is allocated to the state’s school aid fund for K-12 education; and 35% is allocated to the state’s transportation fund for the repair and maintenance of roads and bridges.
In addition, municipalities that allow marijuana establishments are permitted to charge an annual fee of not more than $5,000 to each business to defray application, administrative, and enforcement costs associated with the operation of a marijuana businesses in its borders. Cities also can establish fines for establishments that violate local marijuana ordinances, so long as those fines are civil infractions and are not more than $500.
That doesn’t mean marijuana brings additional money to every aspect of a community. Because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, entities who rely on federal funding are often advised to take stands against the drug. For example, only a few month’s after the vote to legalize marijuana in the state, Bay College updated its drug-free workplace policy to include “such use, manufacture possession or distribution of marijuana continues to be a violation of federal law” after it was advised to do so by its attorney. It was further clarified at that time that even medicinal use would violate the college’s workplace policy.
The council’s decision to extend the moratorium on marijuana sales by to years wouldn’t mean the city couldn’t allow — or indefinitely ban — marijuana within the two year window.
“I will remind all of us that at any time the council may take it up much before that deadline, if that’s the decision of the council at that time,” said Mayor Marc Tall Thursday.
Whatever the council decides isn’t necessarily the end of the issue if residents feel strongly about commercial marijuana. Individuals could petition to initiate an ordinance to provide for a number of marijuana establishments or ban the sale of the drug all together. The petition would have to receive enough signatures to appear on the next regular election ballot and be approved by voters to initiate the change.