marijuana plant
(Courtesy of Pixbay user 7raysmarketing)

Detroit City Council is hoping to finalize long awaited legislation next month to please Detroiters seeking a fair shot at sharing in the city’s recreational marijuana industry. 

The ordinance has been delayed multiple times as council members wrangle over social equity provisions for longtime Detroiters, the number of overall licenses for would-be business owners, and the community benefits requirements for the recreational marijuana facilities. 


Although Michigan residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018, the city of Detroit has struggled to find a way to have adult-use businesses open legally while being equitable for Detroiters. 

Some council members want the businesses open as soon as possible to create a thriving industry. Others remain cautious and have proposed changes to ensure longtime residents actually reap the benefits of the dollars the industry is expected to bring in. 

The prospect of the law being approved has Detroiters seeking to operate the establishments eager for the leg up, but residents in some neighborhoods are worried about the negative effects of having dispensaries in residential areas and around churches and schools. 

Marcia Spivey, secretary for the Regent Park Community Association, sent a letter to council members arguing residents don’t fully comprehend how the marijuana shops will impact their quality of life and that amendments to the proposal cater too heavily to the Cannabis industry over the constituents. 

“I’m all for people opening businesses, but in my opinion, this ordinance is more about helping some people get money than it is about helping Detroit residents thrive,” she said. 

Other Detroit residents, like Crystal Rice, are hopeful that the council will approve the law and make amendments later on, if needed. 

“Just like the (United States) Constitution wasn’t perfect, this doesn’t need to be either,” Rice said at Tuesday’s formal session. “We are constantly updating things, so we can do that here.”

Council President Pro Tem James Tate, who represents northwest Detroit’s District 1, estimates that the recreational marijuana industry could generate $8 million in revenue within four years. 

A public hearing and subsequent vote on the ordinance are anticipated at the council’s April 5 formal session.

City Council approved a prior version of the ordinance in November 2020, but a federal judge ruled in June that it was “likely unconstitutional’‘ for giving too much preference to some Detroit residents.

One of the main reasons council members added a social equity component to the ordinance was to give “Legacy Detroiters” – or people who have lived in Detroit for at least 15 years – a chance to own recreational marijuana businesses after decades of Black and Brown communities being harmed by strict drug policies. 

At-large Councilman Coleman Young II said the ordinance gives Detroit a chance to fix communities that were “ravaged” by the war on drugs. 

“If there’s nothing else that we do here with this ordinance today, it is that we rectify the damages, the racist damages that the drug war has contributed to,” Young said during Tuesday’s meeting. 

A 2020 Michigan Regulatory Agency report found that about 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Social equity programs have been created in several states across the country, including Michigan, as a response. 

The report also notes that by December 2020, of those who had shown ownership interest in a licensed recreational cannabis business in Michigan, less than 4% were Black and less than 2% were Hispanic or Latino. 

Young wants as many people as possible to participate in the adult-use marijuana market and he believes getting the ordinance adopted quickly is the best way to do that. 

Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero, who represents southwest Detroit’s District 6, echoed that urgency. 

“The people that have been waiting for this really cannot afford to wait anymore,” she added.

Santiago-Romero said her district is one of two in the city that has the highest number of available locations for recreational marijuana facilities. 

The city’s District 3, which is represented by Councilmember Scott Benson, is the other. 

Benson favors a law that will gradually allow more businesses to join in the industry as time goes on. That, he said, will produce the best results for “Legacy Detroiters.”

“It creates a situation where you may not have the financial resources today, but in that second phase, you very well may and if not in the second phase, you might have it in the third phase, as opposed to having equity applicants and legacy Detroiters competing with everybody in the same phase,” Benson said. 

Benson also has concerns about a proliferation of businesses opening up in the two council districts. 

“We would see the lion’s share within the third and sixth districts,” he said “And unfortunately, once the scat is out of the donkey, you’re not putting it back in.” 

Despite Benson’s discussion of what would help Legacy Detroiters, Spivey, who also is an attorney, said the ordinance and its proposed amendments are “tone deaf to what residents are asking for.”

“None of the proposed amendments addressed the concerns of residents, not one,” Spivey said. 

Spivey said there needs to be transparent community discussions about the lack of community benefits agreements between marijuana business owners and residents. She also wants to see the zoning language adjusted and more consideration for the “offensive environmental” side effects that marijuana lounges could create in neighborhoods. 

Kimberly Scott, founder of medical marijuana dispensary Chronic City, is supportive of the law as it’s written.

“This gives us current Black operators as well as newcomers social equity as well as outsiders opportunity into the cannabis industry,” Scott said. 

Jamaine Dickens, president of the Detroit-based public affairs firm Compass Strategies, has worked with clients interested in joining the adult-use marijuana industry and said the council is doing what it can to satisfy residents and business owners alike.

Dickens said regardless of a judge ruling the “Legacy Detroiter” language unconstitutional, the council is taking the right approach. 

“Given communities like Detroit have been plagued for long with all the legality around marijuana and other drugs, it makes perfect sense to give Detroiters a leg up in an industry that could bring a lot of revenue and jobs to the city,” Dickens said. 

Dickens, a former communications director for ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, said one of the biggest barriers for Detroiters and anyone else getting into the cannabis industry is access to capital. 

“The ordinance wants to foster partnerships for businesses that help longtime Detrotiers get involved and work with companies that have the capital needed to make it in this business,” he said, “and you can see that the people who partnered with Detrotiers can get their licenses first.” 

Mike DiLaura, general counsel at House of Dank, a chain of five medical marijuana facilities in and around Detroit, said the key is to get interested people involved as early as possible. 

“Right now we’re talking about having fewer than 80 licenses available, and what that means is you’re talking about zero opportunities for anybody after day one and I think Detroit can do better than that,” DiLaura said. 

Spivey said city council needs to remember that the business owners who want to profit off the cannabis industry still have a responsibility to Detroit residents who live or work near their businesses. 

A “good neighbor” provision in the ordinance, she said, “lacks enforcement” and must be “strengthened and expanded.” Spivey recommended more efforts to determine how the policy can result in true community “benefits” without pitting neighborhood groups against one another. 

“I hope the people who are talking about opening up adult-use (marijuana) businesses are willing to reinvest in the surrounding neighborhoods, because if not, city council needs to ensure that all the dollars they are talking about bringing in make their way to the nearby communities,” she said. 

Bryce Huffman is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. He was formerly a reporter for Michigan Radio, and host of the podcast, Same Same Different.

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