With poll: Ann Arbor City Council places 4-month moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries
The Ann Arbor City Council, like several other local municipalities, is wading into the murky language of the state medical marijuana law in an attempt to determine how to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
And the council decided Thursday to place a four-month moratorium on new dispensaries in the city as staff work on recommendations for zoning medical marijuana operations.
The moratorium won't affect existing dispensaries, caregivers or patients acting within the state law. But those dispensaries grandfathered in won't be exempt to any zoning and regulations approved by the City Council in 120 days.
City Attorney Stephen Postema said the legal questions Ann Arbor and other municipalities face stem from the fact that the state law isn't “contemplating the issue of dispensaries.”
A lack of language on dispensaries in the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act has forced municipalities to develop their own zoning ordinances and regulations. Some have prohibited it altogether, some have not imposed any regulations and others have sought a middle ground.
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Most recently, Ypsilanti placed a 90-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries.
“It’s a problem for municipalities, and that’s what they have to deal with,” Postema said.
He added marijuana is still illegal on a federal level, despite the Obama administration directing authorities not to arrest those operating legally under state medical marijuana laws. Several council members also said they heard concern from residents over the possibility of dispensaries in their neighborhoods.
City staff and the planning commission will now take up the task of determining which zoning districts are most appropriate for the dispensaries. They'll make recommendations to council.
Roughly 100 people showed up at Thursday's meeting to oppose the original resolution, which would have shut down dispensaries for six months. It was also unclear whether that moratorium would have allowed caregivers and patients to grow and distribute marijuana per state law.
Many were also upset over the short notice council provided the public that a moratorium would be discussed. Several council members said they were unaware the issue would be discussed and questioned why it was put on the agenda the day before the meeting instead of the previous week, as is customary.
Charles Ream, who is involved in a planned dispensary on Packard Road near Iroquois Place, contended hundreds of patients rely on the dispensaries for their needs and can't grow marijuana themselves.
He said voters passed the law by an overwhelming majority because “they wanted sick people, with their doctor’s recommendation, to actually be able to get safe access to their medicine.”
“Please do not pass this resolution,” he said. “If you do pass it, please exempt those dispensaries that have already started serving patients.”
Approval of the moratorium came after 90 minutes of discussion. That followed nearly 30 minutes of public comment in which several prominent local figures in the medical marijuana industry spoke against the original proposed moratorium.
Early in the council’s discussion, Council Member Christopher Taylor, D-3rd Ward, suggested several friendly amendments exempting caregivers and patients who grow, distribute and use medical marijuana as permitted under state law.
Licensed caregivers are allowed to grow up to 72 plants if they're also patients, and 60 if they aren't.
Taylor said the moratorium doesn’t need to keep patients or their caregivers from their plants, “which is their right per state law.” He sought to ensure the moratorium was focused on land use.
“The purpose of that amendment is to make very clear that the moratorium does not prevent patients from cultivating for themselves, and does not prevent caregivers from cultivating the number of plants the are authorized to cultivate,” Taylor said.
Council Member Sandi Smith, D-1st Ward, called the six-month moratorium “punitive” to dispensaries already in business. She pointed to other municipalities like Traverse City, which “have gone further, faster” with the issue and requested the moratorium be reduced to 90 days.
City Administrator Roger Fraser recommended 120 days to allow staff time to prepare recommendations and receive public input. Council members agreed on the new time frame.
Council Member Sabra Briere, D-1st Ward, questioned the impact closing down dispensaries could have on patients with no other options to obtain medical marijuana.
“This is not about druggies, it’s not about people who are stoners, it’s about medical care,” she said. “That’s what we all voted for. Unless we have an alternative for medical care, which we don’t at this time then putting these entities in limbo for the next 120 days while we decide what to do is not acceptable to me."
Several council members expressed support for “maintaining the status quo,” and Taylor suggested language to prohibit the “initiation and expansion” of any city property for dispensing medical marijuana.
Council Member Margie Teall, D-4th Ward, who said she heard concerns from her constituents, supported that amendment.
“We’ll be examining everything from that point, it just makes sense that we would be able to keep those businesses open for another four months,” she said.
Council Member Stephen Rapundalo, D-2nd Ward, said the zoning issues need to be studied in their entirety, and grandfathering an existing dispensary was “predetermining an outcome.” He was the lone no vote against the amendment to grandfather in existing dispensaries.
Rapundalo also noted he heard concerns from residents over dispensaries and said the health, safety and welfare of residents was the first consideration.
Police Chief Barnett Jones told the council police haven't had any issues related to medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
Mayor John Hieftje underscored that he didn’t want to make obtaining medical marijuana difficult for anyone, but found taking 120 days to discuss the issue with residents reasonable.
“It does seem to me given what we’ve heard from our neighborhoods, it would not be a bad idea to step back, take a little time,” he said. “Don’t change a thing from the way it is now, but take a little time to decide how we will go forward.”
Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Reach the news desk at email@example.com or 734-623-2530.