By Emily Elconin
Old Town Lansing Times Staff Reporter
Co-owners Brian Hamilton and Ronnie Sartain of Puff N’ Stuff dispensary located at 229 W. Grand River Ave. in Old Town share a passion for the legalization of medical marijuana. After sustaining personal injuries from a motorcycle accident and a broken ankle, Hamilton and Sartain made a decision to stop using opiates to alleviate pain and start using cannabis as an alternative painkiller.
Although medical marijuana is considered by some experts to be a viable alternative to traditional painkillers, tensions continue to rise in Lansing regarding a new ordinance that addresses regulation and zoning for medical marijuana facilities.
As dispensaries surrounding the outskirts of Old Town still remain unregulated, the amount of dispensaries open raises concern for public safety in the community.
Today there are approximately 60 marijuana shops around Lansing that are unregulated, according to Director of Government Relations for the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce Steve Japinga.
“What we’ve been working on with the mayor and city council is to implement common sense regulations and update the marijuana ordinance,” Japinga said, “Every other business in town is regulated including food, pharmacy, medicine, and alcohol. This is now the only sector that are unregulated and that’s where our concern lies with these centers opening up all over the place.”
Earlier in April, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero issued a moratorium on unregulated medical marijuana provisioning centers which prohibits any new facilities from opening.
“It’s funny because this is exactly what city council brought up a couple weeks ago. First off, you cannot put a moratorium up because it’s against the city of Lansing decriminalization law,” Hamilton explained, “There’s already a decriminalization law set in Lansing that allows us to do what we’re doing. By putting up a moratorium, it actually goes against the law.”
Criminal defense lawyer with a special focus on marijuana cases for more than 20 years Matthew Abel explains how a moratorium is intended to be temporary so the municipality has time to readjust to the rapidly changing conditions.
“In the case where moratoriums have been extended over and over and over again is unfair and the municipality really shouldn’t be doing that,” Abel said.
In 2011, a moratorium was passed by the charter township of Lansing, Ingham County, Mich. that imposed an extended a moratorium on the issuance of permits or licenses for the sale or dispensation of medical marijuana and the establishment and operation of marijuana growing facilities.
“The last time this happened the city tried to stop all the medical marijuana dispensaries, but once there’s a word of a moratorium, everyone jumped in and started up,” Hamilton explained, “There’s no list on who is already there. By saying there is a moratorium, there’s probably going to a bigger growth of dispensaries.”
Hamilton received an e-mail on Friday that the Committee of Public Safety meeting scheduled for April 15 has been canceled due to a delay in the preparation of the draft Medical Marijuana Ordinance by the City Attorney’s Office.
“The city attorney’s office has asked city council many of times how exactly they should go about regulating and licensing the marijuana shops legally,” Hamilton explained, “I know they’re trying to do the right thing and listen to both sides of the fence, good or bad.”
Abel says that the city didn’t have any authority to put dispensaries up in the first place.
“I don’t see how the city can put a moratorium on something that they aren’t doing anything about,” Abel said, “The moratorium may be more symbolic than anything else.”
Hamilton anticipates that the moratorium will result in a bigger growth of dispensaries in Old Town.
“Just because Virg said today that there’s a moratorium, doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone already trying to put up another dispensary,” Hamilton said, “In the next two weeks, there will probably a surge of medical marijuana dispensaries being built before they find out where all these medical dispensaries are.”
University of Vermont Karen Lounsbury professor who holds a doctorate in pharmacology says the situation currently happening in Lansing isn’t particularly unusual because there is not a universal set of rules and regulations regarding medical marijuana.
“It’s not unusual because there’s so many different rules and regulations. All states have their own issues to worry about,” Lounsbury explained, “The moratorium means that somebody got nervous because it was too widespread. All it takes is a few people who have enough power to make changes because there’s nothing set.”
Chairperson for public safety for Lansing City Council Carol Woods explains how the topic of regulating these dispensaries is a very convoluted situation.
“We’re looking for facilities that have a safe, secure access for medical marijuana patients to be able to access their caregivers and to be able to get medical marijuana with the cards that they have that have been issued by the state,” Woods explained, “That’s all that legal at this time.”
Hamilton says he has attended every single city council meeting since December and feels that the issue of public safety has been dragged on for far too long. Hamilton says he sometimes speaks at these meetings.
“If they buckled down on our public safety and zoning, the rest of the city has to fall in line,” Hamilton said.
Abel says the proper way to deal with the location of dispensaries is zoning. He says there is a proper place for zoning but the Supreme Court hasn’t yet taken a position.
“I think dispensaries should be regulated because that would give us an option where we can start paying taxes and giving back to the community like everyone else does in the outside community,” Sartain said.
Woods said that regulating marijuana dispensaries remains in a gray area. Until city council has a better definition and understanding of what those regulations are, she doesn’t want to speculate what the future of neighborhoods could potentially look like if tax revenue from regulating dispensaries was put back into Old Town.
Professor Emeritus of Public Policy in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and leading drug policy expert Mark Kleiman thinks that the goal of cannabis policy should be health and safety, not revenue.
“If states keep legalizing, Congress will eventually go along. But but then it will be too late for sensible control policy,” Kleiman said, “We’ll be locked into alcohol-style legalization which is the worst policy from a public health perspective.”
Kleiman thinks that legalizing marijuana will lead to the public being systematically miseducated by companies seeking to profit from heavy use.
“The big joke is the Michigan legislature. They have not done their job over eight years,” Abel said, “House Bill 4210 is an amendment to the Medical Marihuana Act that further defines usable marijuana. That bill should be passed regardless of how the dispensary amendment comes out because patients need to be protected and they need that kind of medicine. It’s a disgrace that the legislature hasn’t done that.”
A current project Abel is currently involved in is MI legalize which is an initiative campaign that aims to legalize marijuana and end years of harmful prohibition in Michigan. This proposal is for adult recreational use to be on the ballot in 2016.
Abel describes how the tax budget will be separated.
“Forty percent will go to state transportation budget, 40 percent will go to education budget and 20 percent will go to the municipality where the store would be located itself. There would be a 10 percent tax plus six percent sales,” Abel explained.
Abel says this would allow any city township to license any size growing or processing retail with a 10 percent tax that will be divided three ways.
“I think the problem is that there is no usual with the medical marijuana regulation and in regards to dispensaries. Individual states can make whatever rules they want they can do that because the federal government is not allowed to spend any money to enforce federal law,” Lounsbury said.
Lounsbury explains how in Vermont there are some weird regulations with dispensaries. She says in Vermont there are a total of four dispensaries in the entire state and there is little involvement with pharmacists who can make helpful suggests for patients.
“All the states are very different. There’s nobody that has set up ground rules that works best because it’s all too new,” Lounsbury said.
Lounsbury says these laws are made by the politicians because of public outcry or fear.
“We’re so heavily influenced by information we get from our culture we are very slow to change our ideologies,” Lounsbury said, “Trying to change that label is a challenge.”
University of Michigan Kevin Boehnke who holds a doctorate in public health disparities conducted a study with associates that surveyed people who patronized a medical marijuana dispensary and asked them how has their medication use changed since started using cannabis as medicine and how was quality of life changed.
“My story began when I got into a really bad motorcycle accident in 2009,” Hamilton describes, “I broke my pelvis in two locations. I went from being bed ridden to a wheelchair to a crutches to a cane and here I am, not on opiates and pills.”
Hamilton feels that medical marijuana patients are being singled out amongst other patients who may use different forms of medicine.
“A lot of times one of the most common medications that is given to people with chronic pains are opioids. While these are effective for certain types of pain, when you use them over a long period of time, you can build a tolerance,” Boehnke explained, “There is a risk of overdose and toxicity from taking those larger and higher doses of opioids and that risk can go up.”
Hamilton says marijuana helped him cope without the pills and opiates.
“We found that people said they decreased opioid use by 64 percent and reported having better quality of life resulting in a use of fewer classes of medications,” Boehnke explained.
According to Boehnke’s study results show that 119 out of 184 participants use of opioids before the initiation of cannabis. In addition, the study found shows 33 out of 184 participants decreased use of opioids after the initiation of cannabis.
Old Town resident Lillian Werbin suffers from chronic (severe) nausea and has had her medical marijuana card for about seven years. Prior to becoming a regular smoker, Werbin battled with a fairly bad opiate addiction of Vicodin at the age of 14.
“I was only able to counteract the abuse I had done to my body by smoking through the withdrawals,” Werbin explained, “The marijuana takes the edge off without making my reality a fog.”
Results from the Boehnke’s study show indicate since the initiation of medical cannabis use, chronic pain patients reported significant decreases in medication side effects that affected their daily functioning (including opioids), decreases in total number of medications being taken, and improvements in quality of life.
“I have found myself able to enjoy life more significantly because I have my card. I don’t feel like an addict. It’s fairly liberating,” Werbin said.
Hamilton and Sartain decided to open up their own dispensary in Old Town because they feel it is an accepting, artistic, smaller, flourishing community that is trying to emerge from a bad past.
“I think our location has a lot of advantages being that you have a lot of people walking through Old Town,” Sartain said, “We catch the people who walk through in this neighborhood. It’s a beautiful neighborhood to be in.”
Andrianna Broeman who has been an Old Town resident for eight years says that there should be a balance of business across Old Town. Broeman says the amount of dispensaries is oversaturated.
“I’m accepting of it but there’s not a clear picture of where you can operate or under what kind of laws,” Broeman said, “I don’t want a marijuana dispensary on every corner in this tiny little neighborhood that consists of four blocks.”
Japinga says that these neighborhood pockets each have their own individual identity. He says this draws back to bigger picture of the importance of businesses to understand what those regulations are.
“All businesses should operate at the same level,” Hamilton explained, “There should be some type of regulation in Old Town or any area in Lansing that if these dispensaries can pass backgrounds and building passes issued from the city, then neighborhoods like Old Town should be able to welcome these new businesses.”
Japinga says another concern is ensuring patients have safe access to medical marijuana. He says there has to be control and these facilities can’t be on every street corner.
“Zoning is a local issue,” Abel explained, “I think there might be zones we want to have as green zones where we’re allowed to have dispensaries shoulder to shoulder and there might be other areas where we want them apart because of the character of the neighborhood.”