Detroit busts 167 pot shops, with more closures coming

Detroit busts 167 pot shops, with more closures coming

Pot plants mature inside a grow house, later to be harvested, packaged and sold.

DETROIT — Detroit's crackdown on illegally operating medical marijuana dispensaries has shuttered 167 shops since the city's regulation efforts began last year, and dozens more are expected.

Detroit city attorney Melvin Butch Hollowell said that 283 dispensaries were identified last year, all of which were operating illegally.

"At the time I sent a letter to each one of them indicating that unless you have a fully licensed facility, you are operating at your own risk," he said.

An additional 51 shops are in the pipeline to be closed in the coming weeks, Hollowell said. That would bring the closures up to 218, a step closer to the  goal laid out by officials to only have 50 dispensaries in the city.

And as of last week, only five have been licensed and are legally allowed to operate within city limits. Applications are still in the queue for approval, Hollowell said.

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The city's medical marijuana ordinances took effect March 1, 2016. Since then, teams of inspectors from the city's Building Safety Engineering and Environmental Department and police officers have visited many of the identified stores to alert them of their noncompliance.

The new ordinances require operators to obtain a business license designed for the medical marijuana stores.

Shops are also prohibited from operating within a 1,000-foot radius of a church, school, park, liquor store, other dispensary or a drug-free zone such as a library or child care center, Hollowell said. They also must close by 8 p.m.

Store operators can apply for a variance to operate within those boundaries, however.

"The voters of the state made medical marijuana legal, so we have to manage that in a way that is consistent with keeping our neighborhoods respected and, at the same time, allowing for those dispensaries to operate in their specific areas that we’ve identified as being lawful," Hollowell said. 

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There are an estimated 244,125 registered medical marijuana users in Michigan, and the city has been enforcing the ordinances via court orders and administrative actions.

"We ask the court for order of closure and padlocking. ... We haven't lost one of those cases yet," Hollowell said.

Community members like Winfred Blackmon have expressed concern about the city's large number of dispensaries for years.

Blackmon chairs a group of community leaders called the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition. He isn't against marijuana usage for sick people, he said, but he wants the shops to be properly regulated.

"When this marijuana stuff got out of control we had people from Palmer Woods, the east side, University District, Bagley, they all started e-mailing and it grew," Blackmon said. "People started getting frustrated with the marijuana shops that kept popping up around their houses and schools."

The city has a dedicated unit of seven attorneys in its legal department that specifically focuses on dispensary-related issues, Hollowell said, at both the enforcement phase and the licensing and regulatory level.

Petition language that would legalize marijuana for recreational uses was turned in to the Secretary of State earlier this month with the hope of appearing on the 2018 ballot. The city is aware of the effort and is monitoring it appropriately in case it appears on the ballot and is eventually passed, the attorney said.

"A number of states have legalized medicinal marijuana or legalized marijuana, even not for medical purposes," he said. "There are models from other states out there in how that’s been regulated."

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