Detroit Votes To Halt Weed Dispensary Permitting Amid Legal Drama

By Keri Blakinger 02/19/18

The moratorium could force the closure of existing dispensaries that now won’t be able to get local approval required by the state. 

A medical marijuana shop in Detroit
A medical marijuana shop in Detroit Photo via YouTube

Last Tuesday, the Detroit City Council greenlit a 180-day moratorium on greenery.

The decision puts a halt on new medical marijuana permitting and licensing in light of legal challenges sparked by a pair of pot initiatives aimed at relaxing restrictions on marijuana businesses. 

"This is a cautionary tale for those who want to seek ballot initiatives with illegal language in them or language that is afoul of proven case law," Councilman James Tate said Tuesday. "This is a perfect example of things that can go wrong."

The moratorium, approved two days before a filing deadline, could force the closure of existing dispensaries that now won’t be able to get local approval required by the state. 

City voters approved a pair of cannabis initiatives last year in a referendum vote removing the zoning board’s authority to review dispensary applications and allowing pot businesses to open their doors even within 500 feet of churches or other dispensaries. The measures also created a process for licensing that would bypass city council. 

The initiatives passed with 60% voter approval in November. 

But afterward, council members pushed city attorneys to head into court over concerns regarding zoning language.

“The initiatives contained impermissible zoning provisions and have been legally challenged in the Wayne County Circuit Court," Tate wrote, according to the Detroit Free Press. "The law department believes that the initiatives will be declared void in whole or part."

Now, although the city has received dozens of applications, none of them can get an okay because it’s not clear what the rules are.

"The rules that would be used to judge those applications today might very well be different from the rules that we use to judge those applications next week," said Detroit Corporation Counsel Lawrence Garcia. "Rather than have all these different standards for the same application... we think that a moratorium is an excellent way to freeze things until the legal framework is finalized, stabilized."

But a lawyer representing a number of dispensaries pushed back against that approach.

“It appears this decision was born out of some council members’ heads and has nothing to do with the will of the people of Detroit,” said attorney Michael D. Stein, according to the Detroit News. “Until an ordinance is ruled void, it is effective—end of story. That’s the law of the land.”

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.