Difficult issue comes home

February 5, 2010
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There’s no place like home, even when it comes to distributing medical marijuana.

At least that may be the conclusion Grand Rapids city commissioners will arrive at, if they make key changes to the city’s zoning ordinance.

City officials have to decide whether medical marijuana will be distributed in the city, and the odds are they will allow it, as 63 percent of city voters voted for the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act in the November 2008 election, which produced a 60 percent turnout at city precincts.

Mayor George Heartwell said too many cancer patients are suffering for city officials to wait any longer to take action.

“I don’t think we should sit around and wait for the state to act,” said Rosalynn Bliss, 2nd Ward city commissioner.

“I think (the issue) has been thoroughly researched,” added David Shaffer, 1st Ward city commissioner.

Those comments may trump the fact that commissioners agreed in November to a six-month moratorium on making a decision. The panel seems to be ready to make a decision now that would allow the legal marijuana to be distributed, even though the state act doesn’t require municipalities to create a distribution system.

The state law doesn’t allow for dispensaries, either, like those that populate California, Colorado and other states. City Planning Director Suzanne Schulz, who has done the leg work with planning commissioners on the zoning change, said Denver has more dispensaries than Starbucks, and Los Angeles County has more than Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. Schulz added that the issue isn’t about commerce because the state act doesn’t allow medical marijuana to be sold in storefronts like it is in California.

“There really is no good way to manage this,” said Schulz of creating a distribution method. “But home occupation will allow us to manage it.”

That means qualified patients will be able to meet with registered caregivers, who will grow the plants, to receive their marijuana. Under the ordinance, a meeting can only take place at a patient’s or a caregiver’s home, and each caregiver is limited to serving five patients. Only two patients can be in a caregiver’s home at the same time, and transactions can only take place between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The state will certify the caregivers through the Department of Community Health. All will be given an ID card, and their point of operations has to be their primary residence. All residences must be more than 1,000 feet from a school or day care facility to comply with federal drug-free-zone laws, and all must meet city building codes. Caregivers also have to register for a license with the city clerk’s office.

Schulz said she looked at using medical facilities and clinics as distribution points, but learned the state law prohibits that. The law also doesn’t allow setting up an area for distribution in a pharmacy. Planners met with 15 municipal attorneys during the process.

“We had some concerns on how this would affect our community,” said Lt. Richard Nawrocki of the city’s police department.

Nawrocki, who works in the department’s vice unit, said restricting distribution to private and licensed homes should let marijuana be exchanged in a more low key fashion than what public dispensaries would offer, and should reduce the chances for crimes, such as armed robberies.

Schulz said those who were against using residences as distribution centers wanted the city to create dispensaries, which she felt would also create business opportunities. “They envisioned something on a larger scale,” she said.

Third Ward City Commissioner James White, though, questioned whether the ultimate control over marijuana belongs to the state or to the federal government, which has defined the drug as a controlled substance.

“It’s a real confused area,” said White. “I’m concerned that we’re trying to regulate something that will be a nightmare.”

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