What to expect now that recreational marijuana is legal

Like it or not, it is now legal to possess and consume marijuana for recreational use in Michigan. A few people close to the issue weigh in on how it might affect the citizenry.

By Ron Carnell

For those who haven’t heard by now, recreational marijuana is legal in Michigan.  On Nov. 6, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational marijuana. On Dec. 6, individuals were lawfully permitted to begin growing up to 12 plants, reserve as much as 10 ounces for personal use, and legally carry up to 2.5 ounces. Whatever one’s view on legal marijuana, Michigan’s green wave is on the way.

And it’s been a long time coming. The people’s desire for legal marijuana in Michigan began openly on April 1, 1972. That March, the Michigan Supreme Court declared a possession charge against activist John Sinclair unconstitutional, which left Michigan briefly without a law against marijuana possession. This window of time made way for the first University of Michigan Hash Bash, where a thousand or so students and Ann Arbor area citizens smoked openly on a lawn at Central Campus. The following year’s Bash caught the attention of a state representative, who participated in the celebration.

The Hash Bash and discussions about marijuana law reform became a favorite national media event on every April Fool’s Day for most of the 1970s and beyond.

Throughout the decades since, possession of small amounts has generally not been a focus of law enforcement for arrests, with varying degrees of lenience. In 2008, Michigan legislators decriminalized pot for pain management and terminally ill patients. Though never officially enacted, the medicinal marijuana law paved the way for last year’s Proposal 1, which passed with 63 percent of the vote.

However, marijuana consumers should partake indoors; getting high in public could lead to fines or possible jail time. And until retail operations are up and running, pot remains illegal to purchase or sell.

Getting behind the wheel while under the influence of marijuana is also illegal. Although the science for detecting impairment remains to be fleshed out, driving while high can lead to a DUI charge. Drug recognition experts are an emerging component in police departments across the country and will eventually patrol and make determinations regarding suspected marijuana offenders.

As health professionals and politicians from all points on the political spectrum are more in agreement than ever that decriminalization makes sense, America may sooner than later follow Canada’s lead for national legalization. But for now, it’s a state-by-state effort, with a similar process of legalization-to-retail in each state where marijuana is legalized. On the federal level, marijuana remains a Schedule 1 illegal drug, sharing this classification with heroin and LSD.

So when will marijuana smokables and edibles be available at shops in Michigan? With the time it takes for marijuana departments to be added to liquor boards or other government agencies for regulation and enforcement, licensing processes, growing and harvesting regulations—not to mention the sales-to-revenue details—Michigan won’t see pot shops springing up anytime soon.

“The average time for regulated and taxed sale is a one-to-two-year wait,” said Chelsea Lotz, shift lead at Dockside Cannabis in Shoreline, WA. “It took us two years.”

Lotz added that her state’s regulatory hoops to jump through can change regularly. And staying compliant keeps her and her workmates on their toes.

“What was legal a week ago may not be legal today,” she said. Surprise rule changes from Washington’s State Liquor Board are always expected to be placed immediately into effect.

And those who don’t keep up can be fined or lose their licenses.

“It can be a real pain. I’ve been told that packaging may have to be toned down, get more generic, less bold and colorful so as not to lure minors,” Lotz said. “Since we don’t know when this might come down, everyone’s hesitant to order too much stock.”

One of the chief concerns among lawmakers and some public health and youth advocacy groups is that minors will now have increased access to marijuana. Retailers in Washington disagree. According to Lotz, anyone under 21 in Washington is dutifully excluded from the retail marijuana scene.

“Like just about all other stores, everyone who comes through our door, no matter who, is ID-checked at the door, at the counter and again when paying at the register. In the year I’ve been here, I’ve heard of not a single minor getting ahold of legal weed here,” she said.

Of course, that doesn’t mean it has not happened. But the incentive is high for retailers to play by the rules. Lotz added that it doesn’t take much in Washington to get on the bad side of authorities.

Not all public health and prevention experts agree with current or future retailers about the effectiveness of self-policed stores. There are also strong positions about high-level THC products damaging young brains and other vital organs. (THC is an abbreviation for the chemical compound in marijuana responsible for producing psychological effects.) Many who oppose the new law predict legal marijuana will lead to increased behavioral and cognitive problems among kids, even addiction.

When presented with a promise of strict enforcement by Josh Hovey of Michigan’s Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (which includes the ACLU and numerous drug policy reform groups), Scott Greenlee, president of the anti-legalization group, Healthy and Productive Michigan, was not convinced.

“Law enforcement that opposed this is very concerned about their claim, because enforcement will be very difficult,” said Greenlee. “For example, who is to tell if a 17-year-old has had a marijuana or non-marijuana cookie or gummy bear with him at school for a snack?”

Greenlee also forecasts that roadside testing will produce few results and that legalization will make Michigan’s already sky-high auto insurance take another spike upward.

“Insurance will increase as there will be more risks, more accidents and more liability concerns. And we all know that marijuana stays in the system for about 20-25 days on average. So, if someone took it the night before or two weeks before, who could know?” he said.

Tax revenue from marijuana sales always tops the glass-half-full viewpoint. However, with concerns of black market weed nullifying predictions of a revenue boon, Greenlee claims that other states have seen underground marijuana sales skyrocket, due to an increased youth market “now that it’s legal.”

His theory is that minors will still believe it’s now societally acceptable to smoke up, and this will fuel cheaper sales from seedy sources.

But Hovey has predicted strong revenue gains. Michigan’s taxes on marijuana would be among the lowest of all “weed states,” making it more affordable for legal sale, and therefore less enticing for the black market. His message is that, along with strict and consistently revised regulations and education campaigns targeted toward youth, it will be a win-win situation.

Meanwhile, state police and government liquor boards in all 10 legalized states are virtually unanimous in their woes for legalization. Not at all the least concerned is Marquette County Sheriff Greg Zyburt.

“I predict that throughout Marquette County and the city, there will be an increase of drugged driving arrests and traffic accidents involving persons using the drug and getting behind the wheel. I see no positive effects for police work with the passage of this law,” he said.

Sheriff Zyburt believes that the criminality of weed will arise with different circumstances.

“The arrests will shift from possession to open use, using while driving and minors in possession. I believe kids will have easier access. The potency of pot also causes unexpected issues with those not familiar with using marijuana,” he said.

Michigan entrepreneurs in the medicinal marijuana sphere hoping to break into recreational retail, have been paying attention. Marquette resident, NMU Entrepreneurship graduate, and holder of Negaunee Township’s first local marijuana business license, Logan Stauber, is a strong believer in wider and safer accessibility.

“As one of the first local license holders for a provisioning center in Marquette County, my view of the increased accessibility of marijuana is that it is the most pragmatic approach for Michigan. Proposal 1 follows national trends which I believe should be embraced, as they will create jobs, provide safe access to marijuana products and reduce the amount of wasted resources,” he said.

Stauber also believes that Sheriff Zyburt’s concerns are well-founded and should be taken seriously. But while traffic accidents are a concern, fatalities have not increased.

“A study by the American Journal of Public Health analyzed federal data on car crashes in Colorado and Washington from 2009-2015. The study concluded that there was not an increase in vehicle crash fatalities in these states, relative to similar states, after legalization,” he said.

Stauber also predicts that technology and tracking methods will make sales to minors difficult.

“If commercial marijuana is ever sold to a minor, it will be as easy as a single mouse click to find out what store it came from, what employee sold it and even what batch of marijuana and farm it came from,” Stauber said. “In my experience as a bartender, I received the Serve Safe Alcohol certification on how to identify intoxicated customers and spot fake IDs. Very similarly, it will be of utmost importance to be on the lookout for minors attempting to purchase marijuana. With today’s technology, it will be an easy step to check and scan every customer’s ID upon entry into any marijuana facility.”

There will likely be some city officials across the state who plan to oppose the will of voters and deny licensing. Lotz added that the city of Richland, WA, resisted until recently and finally brought it to a local vote. The voices in favor of retail shops were overwhelming, and Richland finally relented.

Will Marquette go green? Or will the city choose to forego a share of revenues and deny licenses for those who look to open their doors within city limits?

With no word yet on whether the city will approve retail marijuana shops, Commissioner Pete Frazier says it depends largely on what residents want.

“We might hear concerns about potential stores or dispensaries too close to schools. We might hear it’s a great idea for attracting more tourism. City Manager Mike Angeli will make the final decision, but so far, no one’s talking about it,” the commissioner said.

Whether Michigan’s impending green wave finds its way to the shores of the Queen City remains, at least for now, a wait-and-see.

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