The recreational marijuana store High Profile opened in Detroit in March. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

A Detroit councilman has proposed an ordinance to make more land available in the city for recreational marijuana businesses.

Council President Pro Tem James Tate is leading the effort to reduce the required distance between licensed marijuana establishments and other “controlled use” establishments like liquor stores from 1,000 feet to 750 feet. Tate said existing spacing requirements exclude areas where businesses are otherwise allowed under zoning regulations and it prevents some Detroit entrepreneurs from entering the marijuana industry. 

In an interview, Tate said the proposed zoning changes would not affect requirements for licensed marijuana establishments to stay 1,000 feet away from drug free zones like schools and churches. It also wouldn’t change the number of licenses Detroit can issue for marijuana uses. 

Tate introduced the ordinance earlier this year but pulled off the council agenda in April for further discussion. He plans to reintroduce the ordinance changes to the City Council later this year, and is working to gather feedback from residents, marijuana entrepreneurs and city officials in the meantime.

“Ultimately it comes down to are we doing more good than harm?” Tate said. “If you look at it from an industry perspective, the current zoning is not the most attractive for businesses growing within the City of Detroit.”

Council President Pro Tem James Tate speaks at a May 5, 2023, press conference on Detroit’s westside. (Photo courtesy of the City of Detroit)

A draft of the ordinance would make no changes to licensing regulations. Instead, it would reduce the required spacing to 750 feet between marijuana consumption establishments, marijuana microbusinesses, marijuana retail and provisioning facilities. 

There are no licensed consumption lounges in Detroit today. The ordinance would eliminate spacing requirements between consumption lounges and other marijuana businesses, allowing lounges to exist next to places where marijuana can be bought. 

“It’s been an ongoing thing that people have struggled to find appropriate sites, and there’s some people who may be holding on to sites and aren’t doing anything with them,” said Kim James, director of Detroit’s Office of Marijuana Ventures and Entrepreneurship. “Every marijuana use has gone through what’s called the special land use process, and they work to get this designation for their land. Because of the restrictions we have in place, the more (people) who have a special land use designation, the less availability there is.”

James said reducing the spacing requirement would have a “significant impact” on increasing available land. Detroit law sets limits on the total number of licenses available, allowing for 75 licenses for marijuana provisioning centers, 100 adult-use retail licenses, 30 consumption lounge licenses and 30 microbusiness licenses. 

Detroit’s zoning laws require marijuana businesses to stay 1,000 feet away from “controlled uses,” including liquor stores, arcades, pool halls and retail locations where alcohol is sold for off-site consumption. A city planning commission report states Detroit has a high number of controlled uses, so reducing spacing requirements to 750 feet would have a major impact on where marijuana businesses can operate. 

The draft ordinance also clarifies language around “drug-free zones,” defining seven types of facilities that marijuana businesses must stay 1,000 feet away from. This includes child care centers, educational institutions, libraries, outdoor recreation facilities, schools, youth activity centers and public housing. Marijuana businesses must also stay 1,000 feet from religious institutions.

James said only tax-exempt churches qualify as a religious institution under the law. 

“We have a lot of applicants who are very wary, they’re like ‘that church is not operating,’ or they’ll say ‘that church is a car wash,’ and that allows the city assessor to go through and take away that exemption if it’s improper,” James said. 

The Detroit Planning Commission recommended the ordinance changes last September after holding public hearings with residents. A memo describing the feedback showed some were concerned about creating an overconcentration of marijuana uses in certain neighborhoods. 

“People may have voted for recreational marijuana but didn’t vote to have it in their backyard,” Perfecting Church Pastor Marvin Winans wrote in a letter to the Planning Commission. “Also, please remember that many people did not support this ballot initiative, and our voices matter, too.” 

Tate said he understands the criticism and is trying to balance the interests of people who don’t want marijuana in their neighborhood and the 68% of Detroit voters who supported a 2018 ballot proposal legalizing recreational marijuana in Michigan. 

“We want to make sure the residents have an opportunity to chime in and give us their thoughts about how to come up with a happy medium, because just saying you don’t want (recreational marijuana) in the City of Detroit is not an option anymore,” Tate said. “We’re making good on what voters voted for in 2018. But often with these hot issues we have to deal with folks who may be agreeable with adult use … but just don’t want it in their neighborhood.” 

Pat Borsch, executive director of the Nortown Community Development Corporation, said her neighborhood on Detroit’s northeast side has become a magnet for marijuana growers due to the large amount of industrial zoning. Borsch said adding smoking lounges and dispensaries will negatively impact the area. 

“If we want to protect our quality of life, the city should be on the side of strengthening the laws instead of reducing the spacing requirements,” Borsch said.

Other residents said the current spacing requirements present major barriers for Detroiters to enter the industry. Tate said he wants to ensure Black residents who have been most harmed by the prohibition of marijana have a chance to start legal businesses. 

The Detroit Police Department reported criminal issues associated with marijuana businesses  are minor, mostly relating to burglaries. However, DPD expressed concern that a growth in consumption lounges could require more police resources to address criminal activity, similar to problems occuring around hookah lounges.

The city has closed 110 illegal marijuana businesses. Residents are encouraged to report concerns about illegal businesses to (313) 628-2451 or file a complaint online with the Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency.

Tate said he initially had concerns about marijuana businesses causing increases in criminal activity, but so far that hasn’t happened. 

“We still have to be realistic about it; we just literally got the adult use ordinance off the ground,” Tate said. “I think the jury is still out on the impact to a neighborhood.”

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