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Advocates pressure city to consider medical pot

Alexander Sinn • Apr 12, 2019 at 10:00 AM

“Never.”

Grand Haven City Councilman Dennis Scott made it clear Monday that he does not want to see marijuana establishments in the city.

The view is not unanimous on the council, which voted 3-2 that night to approve a ban on recreational marijuana facilities in the city’s Zoning Ordinance. Councilmen Michael Fritz and Bob Monetza voted against the ban, while Fritz and Councilman Josh Brugger both voiced interest in discussing an ordinance to allow medical cannabis facilities. 

The conversation about medical establishments was reignited recently by local advocates who say it would be a first step toward bringing marijuana’s medicinal properties into the mainstream. 

Jamie Cooper, who owns a Grand Haven-based marijuana industry consulting business, and Rebecca Neil, a local wellness practitioner interested in opening a medical dispensary, have approached the council at multiple meetings, requesting a work session to discuss the issue. Cooper is a recreational marijuana user, and also uses CBD to treat her son’s autism symptoms. Neil, who has epilepsy, uses cannabis to treat seizures.

The advocates for medical pot have organized a Facebook group and are prepared to submit a petition to the city if the council does not pursue a medical marijuana ordinance.

Cooper said she’s hoping the council will come to the table to avoid placing the initiative on the November ballot. She recently announced her intention to run for City Council this year.

“The state has a lot of control, but the municipalities can control it even further,” Cooper said. “You can create an ordinance that is going to make your community feel good about it.”

Medical establishments are banned in the city, and Mayor Geri McCaleb said both medical and recreational facilities raise concerns.

The mayor said allowing facilities — which are also banned in most neighboring communities — could create a marijuana “mecca” in Grand Haven. She said the health risks of marijuana use are unclear. While she acknowledged it helps some people with medical conditions, McCaleb said she wants to learn from health experts whether marijuana products are a viable alternative to pharmaceutical products. 

“Initially, I would feel the same way about it that I feel about recreational,” the mayor said. “There are so many unknowns about it.”

About medical marijuana cards, McCaleb added: “I don't think they’re hard to get.”

Cooper said she has had numerous conversations with Grand Haven residents who are curious about medical cannabis treatment options. While cannabis use is prevalent, she said, it mostly remains in the shadows. 

“There’s a lot of people in this community that want it, and they’re not willing to come to a City Council meeting, but they will support it and vote for it,” she said. “They truly want accessibility.”

Another concern from the council is where such establishments would be located, which Fritz said could be carefully zoned like other industries, such as alcohol and pornography retailers.

“We’re not trying to get a dispensary on Washington Street,” Cooper said. “We feel there are places within our community that would be good fits for one.”

Monetza supported the city’s initial recreational marijuana ban, but the councilman sided with the city Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny the Zoning Ordinance change. He said the action was not needed to enforce the policy, but was being sought to prevent city residents from launching a petition.

“That sort of democracy in action is important,” Monetza said. “I think the real reason we’re doing this is to make it petition-proof.”

Brugger, who is opposed to allowing recreational pot businesses, said people could turn to marijuana products instead of opioids, which he said is a public health crisis in Grand Haven.

Cooper worked with advocates in Grand Rapids to launch a petition for medical marijuana facilities, which she said forced the city’s commission to craft an ordinance to avoid a referendum. She said she expects recreational pot policies to “piggyback” off medical uses.

There are flaws in the medical marijuana licensing system in Michigan, which has been inundated with applications, Cooper said. However, some banks in the state are working with the industry, and she said many of the concerns about access to cannabis come down to “social responsibility.”

“It was recreational cannabis and recreational use of cannabis that opened people’s minds to using it medicinally,” she said.

A petition to allow medical marijuana would take just hundreds of signatures in a city whose voters supported a state ballot proposal legalizing recreational use in November 2018. It may not come to that, as Brugger and Fritz asked City Manager Pat McGinnis to schedule a work session to discuss the possibility of an ordinance.

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