Najanava Harvey-Quinn and Andre Murphy inside the store
East side marijuana store High Profile is owned by Najanava Harvey-Quinn and is managed by Andre Murphy. The store has many Michigan brands such as Cloud Cover. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Abdullah Muhammad’s relationship with marijuana is complicated.

The dislike for it started in December 1992, when his brother Muhsin Muhammad II was arrested for possession of the substance as a sophomore at Michigan State University.

Abdullah Muhammad
Abdullah Muhammad is the owner of dispensary Gage 313, which opens next month on Detroit’s west side. He said he was traumatized in the past over his brother’s marijuana-related arrest, but has decided to turn that negative experience into something positive. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Muhsin was pulled over by police. The officer, Abdullah said, then saw that his brother had marijuana in the car, pulled him out and arrested him.

Abdullah picked up his brother from jail the next day. Seeing Muhsin in a jumpsuit traumatized him, he said.

“At that moment, I felt like his life, essentially, was pivoting toward something that could cascade into a negative because you don’t know what the ending is going to be,” Abdullah told BridgeDetroit. “I don’t know how long he’s gonna be in jail. I don’t know once he gets out of jail, if he’s going to be able to continue his college education or get a job. I had no idea at that moment.”

Although Muhsin would be arrested again the following year, he went on to have a long football career, first at Michigan State and later in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears.

The experience made Abdullah realize that police weren’t just targeting his brother when it came to drug possession, but other Black people as well due to the War on Drugs. The government movement, which started in the 1970s, aimed to curb illegal drug use. But the enforcement of strict prison sentences for drug dealers and users disproportionately impacted people of color.

Another person who understands those effects is Najanava Harvey-Quinn. Her sister, Blair Harvey-Quinn, was charged around 2008 with possession of marijuana for having a joint in her car.

“It wasn’t even hers, but it was in her car,” Najanava said. “And she ended up with a charge that kept her from applying for certain jobs that she would have liked to apply to.

“It’s a compounding issue,” she added, “especially in our community where people are just trying to figure out how to survive.”

These days, both Abdullah and Najanava are embracing marijuana as a positive way to uplift Detroit and bring prosperity to Black people. The Detroiters are among the first in the City of Detroit to receive licenses for recreational marijuana shops. Najanava opened the cannabis store High Profile earlier this month, while Abdullah intends to open his store, Gage 313, next month. This is thanks to the long-awaited approval of Detroit’s recreational marijuana ordinance last year, allowing for the operation of adult-use cannabis retail dispensaries, consumption lounges and microbusinesses that ensures Detroit entrepreneurs are a priority.

“I’ve always had this love-hate relationship with cannabis,” Abdullah said. “I’ve never smoked it. I’ve never consumed it, partly because of the issues that I’ve dealt with when I was younger. But now, I’m all the way in and trying to use it as a vehicle to help other people.” 

The long, legal battle for Detroit

The recreational marijuana store High Profile opened earlier this month in Detroit. It is operated by Detroiter Najanava Harvey-Quinn, one of the first to secure a city license for recreational sales under Detroit’s ordinance. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Despite Michigan becoming the first Midwestern state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018, Detroit struggled for years to craft a law for adult-use businesses open legally while being equitable for Detroiters.

Detroit’s City Council in 2020 voted to allow adult-use recreational sales to start the following year. Since then, legal challenges have sought to strike down the law over components designed to give advantages to long-term Detroit applicants. 

A federal judge in 2021 said the city’s “legacy Detroiter” provision, defined as a resident of the city for at least 10 years, was “likely unconstitutional” for giving too much preference to some residents.

A lawsuit challenging the ordinance was filed in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan and a trial date was set for last September. In response, Tate introduced a revised ordinance creating a separate track for licensing that didn’t pit equity applicants against non-equity applicants.

The federal judge last December allowed the city’s licensing process to proceed, paving the way for Detroit to move forward with a revised ordinance. The city awarded the first batch of 33 licenses to marijuana businesses later that month. And on Saturday, the city will celebrate the first “Detroit legacy” Black-owned dispensary with the grand opening of Nuggets Cannabis Co. Detroit Dispensary on the city’s west side. 

City Council President Pro Tem James Tate, who represents Detroit’s District 1, took the lead on drafting the city’s adult-use ordinance. Also playing a part in the writing process was Abdullah, who joined the councilman’s Detroit Recreational Ordinance Work Group in 2019. The group consisted of Detroit residents and people from across the country with knowledge about the cannabis industry, he said. Their goals were to create the definition of a “legacy Detroiter” as well as the licensing application for businesses, along with other responsibilities. 

“We fight because we want to make sure that this industry, that has literally shown no ceiling, is one that allows for those who have been historically prosecuted for the same plan, but now folks are making a lucrative lifestyle from,” Tate said during a December news conference. 

The work group’s first meeting convened about 50 people in the basement of Abdullah’s nonprofit Sound Mind Sound Body on Detroit’s east side. Once the pandemic hit, meetings took place virtually or around Abdullah’s kitchen table.

“We had weekly meetings with the law department, City Council,” Abdullah said. “And they would bring in other people in the city to help give legal advice and steer us in the right direction.” 

Among them, city attorney Kim James, who drafted the language for the recreational marijuana codes. James, who now is the director of the city’s Office of Marijuana Ventures and Entrepreneurship, said the yearslong process was a “labor of love.”

“Upon getting the second ordinance approved in April of 2022, we knew it was good, because we studied so many other cities and so many cases,” she said. “And we felt really good that we had developed something that would be upheld. The difficult part was waiting.” 

Once the city began accepting adult-use applications last August, James said the process took about three months. The city’s marijuana office hired a law firm to review corporate documents and business plans and scored each business with electronic and paper score sheets. After that, the office ranked the businesses in order of the scoring.

James said the application process illustrated the knowledge gap between large cannabis companies and Detroit entrepreneurs looking to get into the industry. Some applicants only submitted a driver’s license, thinking their status as a longtime Detroit resident was enough. 

To help people with their application, the marijuana office has partnered with the Detroit Cannabis Project to host workshops on marketing, branding, business planning and accounting, James said. The marijuana office is currently waiting for the City Council to approve the second round of applications. 

“I am excited because it’s really important to Detroiters and people in the social equity space and so that’s why I keep fighting for it,” she said. “I don’t necessarily agree with having a dispensary on every corner, but I do feel like if we’re going to do it, that we need to protect Detroiters and people of color and people who are disproportionately impacted by enforcement.” 

A seat the table

Abdullah was able to benefit from the social equity component for Gage 313 by partnering with the cannabis company TerrAscend. The Canadian company operates several stores in Michigan under the brands, Gage, Cookies, Pinnacle and Lemonnade. Some of its stores in metro Detroit include Cookies Detroit, Gage Ferndale and Lemonnade Center Line. 

TerrAscend is leasing Abdullah’s west side store and paying for things like infrastructure and marketing, he said. The almost 2,000-square-foot store, located at 14239 W. 8 Mile Road, was formerly the medical marijuana dispensary Green Cross, which was Detroit’s first licensed medical marijuana center. The building is under construction and will have a completely new look under Gage 313, Abduallah said. As for products, Gage will offer edibles, wax and flowers. There will also be merchandise like t-shirts and hats. 

Abdullah plans to open the store in April. He doesn’t have any employees yet, but wants to hire longtime Detroiters and those who had previous felony convictions for marijuana. 

Abdullah said he hopes the ordinance creates a seat at the table for legacy Detroiters and inspires them to open their own businesses, whether it’s within or outside the cannabis industry. 

“Some of what I’m doing, the majority of the flowers that I buy may come from a Detroit grower,” he said. “That Detroit grower employs Detroit people, that Detroit grower hires a Detroit lawyer, that Detroit grower hires a marketing person from Detroit. 

“What I’m hoping is that money trickles down into the community and other entrepreneurs can help service these companies and supply these companies so that you see wealth build over time,” he said. 

Social justice through cannabis

While Gage 313 is still under construction, High Profile on Detroit’s east side was up and running earlier this month for its soft opening. The brightly lit store was fully stocked with all kinds of marijuana products–flowers in shiny containers, colorful packages of edibles and vapes that came in flavors like “Ruby Red.” 

And of course, there was the obligatory Detroit photo by the green exit sign–The Fist. 

The store officially opened on March 17. 

For co-owner Najanava, seeing her sister being charged for marijuana inspired her    activism. The 36-year-old is founder and managing director of Clean Smoke Community Investment Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the impacts of the War on Drugs in Black neighborhoods through assistance in employment and entrepreneurship. She also joined the Cannabis Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party in 2020, which fights for issues such as the expungement of marijuana misdemeanors and declassifying cannabis as a Schedule 1 narcotic. 

But the idea to get into the marijuana industry came from her friend and Clean Smoke board member Chris Jackson as another way to help people impacted by the War on Drugs, Najanava said. 

After joining the caucus, she began meeting people in the industry, which led to her meeting representatives from C3 Industries, an Ann Arbor-based cannabis company that operates the High Profile chain. High Profile has several dispensaries across Michigan, as well as in Missouri and Massachusetts. The store at 20327 Groesbeck Highway is their first Detroit location. As part of the social equity component in the ordinance, Najanava co-owns the shop along with C3 Industries. 

As part of her role, the west side resident eventually wants to hold expungement fairs and have a community garden where marijuana growers can show neighbors how to grow fruits and vegetables. 

And Najanava said her sister Blair will be among the employees at High Profile.

Najanava believes that the recreational marijuana ordinance has the potential to benefit thousands of Detroiters as long as the city continues to accept equity applicants. 

“If we do this right, we have the opportunity to see many Black millionaires come out of Detroit,” she said. “And that goes down to; you can’t change a city’s violence without changing their poverty. If you’re not addressing poverty, you’re probably not addressing violence. 

“I think that the city has the right people in place who are passionate about it,” she said. 

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