Detroit Shutters More Than 150 Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

By Paul Gaita 06/02/17

MMJ dispensaries in the Detroit area are having a hard time adhering to the city's strict zoning regulations. 

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A medical marijuana dispensary in Michigan.

There are an estimated 244,125 registered medical marijuana users in the state of Michigan, but those living in Detroit are finding that their options on where to purchase the product are growing more limited with each passing day.

The city's medical marijuana ordinances require dispensaries to abide by strict zoning regulations and other requirements in order to obtain a business license to operate. As a result, more than 167 other dispensaries have been forced to close due to noncompliance issues. City authorities say that an additional 51 stores are slated for closure in the coming weeks.

Detroit's medical marijuana ordinances, which took effect on March 1, 2016, require potential and existing canna-businesses to obtain a business license specifically designed for medical marijuana dispensaries. In order to do so, they must be located more than 1,000 feet away from churches, schools, parks, child care centers, arcades, public housing and any youth activity center, as well as other dispensaries. The stores must also close for business by 8 p.m.

Such requirements have proven a challenge for businesses—as High Times noted, maintaining that distance from any of the aforementioned buildings is a considerable challenge in any urban environment. And while store owners may apply to the Board of Zoning Appeals to request a dispensation to operate within those boundaries, only five such licenses have been granted since the ordinances took effect last year. Detroit officials have set a goal to allow only 50 dispensaries citywide.

City attorney Melvin Butch Hollowell has overseen the process of alerting the 283 city dispensaries that are in violation of the ordinance. "We haven't lost one of those cases yet," he noted. "The voters of the state made medical marijuana legal, so we have to manage that in a way that is consistent with keeping our neighborhoods respected and at the same time, allowing for those dispensaries to operate in their specific areas that we’ve identified as being lawful."

Hollowell added that there was "significant" public input in establishing and maintaining the ordinance, including community leaders like Winfred Blackmon, who chairs the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition and the Schaefer-7/8-Lodge Association, a major homeowners group in northwest Detroit. Blackmon has been a vocal advocate for regulating dispensaries for several years.

"When this marijuana stuff got out of control we had people from Palmer Woods, the east side, University District, Bagley, they all started e-mailing and it grew," said Blackmon. "People started getting frustrated with the marijuana shops that kept popping up around their houses and schools."

Blackmon stated that he is not opposed to recreational marijuana if it's properly regulated, and city attorney Hollowell notes that should recent petition language for the legalization of recreational marijuana make its way onto the 2018 ballot, he will continue to monitor its development. "A number of states have legalized medicinal marijuana or legalized marijuana, even not for medical purposes," he said. "There are models from other states out there in how that's been regulated."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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