FRUITPORT, MI – Marijuana, whether medicinal or recreational use, is a hot topic in Michigan.
While a group is collecting signatures in hopes of making the legalization of recreational use in Michigan a ballot issue, governmental officials at various levels are navigating and making decisions on medical marijuana facilities.
Despite a state law, Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Act of 2008, the issue is decidedly local at this time with county prosecutors and local governments playing key roles.
The village of Fruitport, population 1,100, recently took center stage. The village council considered during a June meeting a proposal for a medical marijuana dispensary.
The facility, proposed by a local lawyer and former council member, would have put a grow operation and a dispensary on Third Avenue in the heart of the town.
The village council took the first step to denying the proposed dispensary last month. Council members are scheduled to consider final approval of a resolution at a July 18 meeting.
It is not the first time a Muskegon-area municipality has taken action to outlaw medical marijuana dispensaries.
In addition to banning the facilities in their city, Norton Shores council members created fines to cover legal costs that could emerge if a dispensary opens and the city has to go to court to shut it down.
A local proposal
In February 2017, Jason Kolkema submitted a proposal to the village of Fruitport proposing medical marijuana facilities, a grow operation and a dispensary.
The village — one square mile in Muskegon County — didn’t immediately dismiss it. Kolkema is a former member of the village council and a lawyer practicing in Muskegon County. He grew up in the house where he hopes to run the dispensary. His father also ran business out of the metal shop at the location.
The family isn’t using either of the two buildings currently, and has had trouble finding tenants for the metal shop, Kolkema said. Development along Third Avenue has been sluggish.
“For many, many years, my dad has tried to rent out his building,” Kolkema said. “It just made sense to pursue this.”
Kolkema said that in 2016, Muskegon County had 4,322 registered medical marijuana patients and 680 caregivers. Some patients drive to Lansing to fill their prescriptions, he said.
Kolkema said he doesn’t hold a medical marijuana card but doesn’t see any stigma to marijuana as medicine. He acknowledged early on it was a classic NIMBY issue — like adult video stores or a fast food restaurant, nobody wants one in their backyard.
The vast majority were opposed to a medical marijuana dispensary in the village. Kolkema called the meeting “Reefer Madness” likening it to the 1936 alarmist film.
“People are just kind of up in arms about this,” he said.
The village council was listening. On June 27, while Kolkema fumed quietly from the audience, the council voted 6-1 to create a resolution against medical marijuana in the village.
“Nobody wants it,” Village Councilwoman Donna Pope said.
The village council is set to approve the new resolution at its Tuesday, June 25 meeting.
Strong stance in Muskegon
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson actively has campaigned across the state against the recreational use of marijuana.
At a townhall-type presentation in Detroit to a group of doctors, he was accompanied by a representative from the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.
“We’re not actively running around looking for this stuff,” Hilson said, adding that marijuana enforcement takes a back seat to addressing the epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse. Marijuana cases that involve the youth or traffic accidents get more of his attention than simple possession charges, he said.
Of course, that could change. Recently, a group called Michigan Legalize collected signatures outside the courthouse where Hillson works, hoping to put recreational use of marijuana on a statewide ballot in 2018.
Hilson’s strong stance against recreational marijuana is underlined by enforcement of medical marijuana rules, helping shut down several unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Muskegon in recent years. He also recently played a role in advising the village of Fruitport with a written letter summarizing the law.
Hilson maintains that medical marijuana users who carefully follow the rules are not the problem.
“It’s the folks that instead of growing 72 plants, were growing 200” that face prosecution, he said. “We’ve had that.”
Lakeshore marijuana cases
Marijuana may be legal for those with medical marijuana cards in Michigan, but it still accounts for a sizable amount of illicit drug traffic in West Michigan.
Michigan State Police Detective First Lt. Andy Fias is the section commander of WEMET, the law-enforcement group that enforces drug laws in Muskegon, Ottawa and Allegan counties.
In recent years, prosecutors in all three counties have been very supportive of the team’s efforts to stop unlicensed dispensaries and illegal traffic of marijuana for recreational use.
In 2016, WEMET seized 223 pounds of marijuana flowers and buds, 1,304 marijuana plants and 35 pounds of marijuana hash oil, Fias said. Some of those seizures came from closing down unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries.
“We’ve done a real good job of closing them down in Muskegon County,” Fias said. “They still are very much illegal. We get our tips on them, and shut them down.”
Other communities in Michigan are more lax, Fias said. For instance, unlicensed dispensaries operate within the city of Lansing.
Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Act of 2008 allowed medical marijuana care givers to assist five other patients with medical marijuana cards, and grow 12 marijuana plants per patient — or a total 72 plants.
Fias said WEMET has been very fair to medical marijuana caregivers — educating them about what they need to do to stay compliant, and not seizing all their plants for minor compliance errors.
Most caregivers try to stay compliant, he said. One of the requirements is protecting your marijuana plants from outsiders, and some growers meet that requirement by fencing in their plants, and even covering them with chain links.
Fias said in Ottawa and Muskegon counties, the medical marijuana act has decreased the number of illegal marijuana grows in the countryside. Each year, law enforcement search by aircraft under the Domestic Cannabis Eradication program.
But no matter which of the three lakeshore counties you’re talking about, a substantial amount of the legal charges brought by WEMET have to do with marijuana.
In 2016, WEMET arrested 116 individuals in Muskegon County — a little more than a quarter of 422 arrests over three counties. Those 422 arrests generated a total of 914 total charges or accounts. Of those, 141 — or 15 percent — were marijuana-related.
And, according to Fias’ records, that’s not out of pace with the number of complaints the agency has responded to. See how it breaks down for each county:
- In 2016, WEMET responded to 267 complaints, about 23 percent of which were marijuana related.
- During the first six months of 2017, about 20 percent of complaints responded to by WEMET have dealt with marijuana usage.
- In 2016, 19 percent of complaints were marijuana-related.
- During the first half of 2017, about 27 percent of complaints were marijuana-related.
- In 2016, 32 percent of complaints to date.
- During the first half of 2017, about 17 percent of complaints were marijuana-related.
Michigan has taken the first steps toward building the legal framework for medical marijuana dispensaries, with Gov. Rick Snyder recently announcing members of a committee that would policy governing medical marijuana dispensaries.
But Fias said it’s not clear which state or local agency would handle regulation of dispensaries in the future.