It’s been more than a year since Michigan voters approved Proposal 1, which legalized recreational marijuana for Michiganders age of 21 and older.
But, 13 months later, in parts of West Michigan, recreational — technically referred to as “adult-use” — marijuana businesses are close to nonexistent.
The lack of businesses is a surprise to those who voted in favor of Proposal 1 last year.
Holland resident Ricky Altamira, 23, voted for it. He said that, in the year since, he hasn’t seen the changes he expected after its passage.
“I’ve noticed a little bit of a change, I think I’ve seen more CBD (cannabidol) shops," he said. "But, other than that, nothing’s really been out of the ordinary. Nothing’s really changed.”
Altamira said his understanding as to why Holland and other nearby municipalities have decided not to pursue marijuana businesses comes from a cultural standpoint.
“I realized nothing around the community would change immediately, and I didn’t expect it to,” he said. “I was more so on the moral side of legalization, for us to fear it less and destigmatize it. I did kind of expect a little more hesitation and resistance to (marijuana businesses) just because, I mean, it’s Michigan. I know how conservative — at least from my experience — the western side of Michigan is. I didn’t expect us to be like Colorado anytime soon.”
Colorado was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana in 2014. Doing so has reshaped the state’s tourism sector and economy.
About 80 percent of Michigan municipalities have opted out of the recreational marijuana market, according to Michigan Radio. Those municipalities can opt in at a later date.
In Allegan County, the city of Fennville “opted in” to licensing recreational marijuana businesses, but other municipalities have either been slow to or have not joined them. Saugatuck Township approved licensing medical marijuana facilities earlier in 2019, but the board is yet to decide if it wants to license recreational facilities — despite nearly 61 percent of voters there voting in favor of Prop. 1 in 2018.
Nearly 56 percent of voters across the state approved Prop. 1. Other areas like the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas both had more than two-thirds support for legalizing recreational marijuana, according to voting data, but local officials have opted out of licensing any businesses.
In nearby counties like Kent and Ottawa, most local governments have opted to not license any marijuana businesses. There isn’t a single municipality in Ottawa County that licenses recreational facilities, and only three have in Kent County.
While Grand Rapids, the second largest city in Michigan by population, did opt in to licensing marijuana businesses, the city will not consider any applications for recreational marijuana until April 2020.
Although marijuana has been legal to consume in private and possess in small amounts since the passage of Prop. 1, the lack of businesses ready to sell it has made it difficult to access.
So why the disconnect between local officials and the 2018 vote?
Local governments mulling the decision have to consider zoning ordinances and other safety laws. But those aspects should not be prioritized higher than the will of the voters, said Saugatuck Township Treasurer Jon Helmrich.
While the township continues to grapple with allowing recreational businesses to operate in its limits, Helmrich believes that Prop. 1's passage should be the defining factor for city officials in deciding.
“We’ve surveyed the electorate,” Helmrich said, referring to the 2018 Prop. 1 vote. “In a case like this, when the election was just a year ago, when it was such an overwhelming vote of whatever — in this case, adult marijuana — but it could be anything. That has to weigh a lot on an elected official.”
In parts of Michigan, including nearby South Haven, residents voted on marijuana ordinances again in 2019, this time whether or not to ban marijuana businesses directly, taking the decision away from local government.
Saugatuck Township Planning Commission Chairman Andy Prietz believes the township could also benefit from another vote over the issue.
“Yes, as a statewide referendum (in 2018), people may have been for it, but do they really want (marijuana) in their neighborhoods?” Prietz said. “Let’s give them the opportunity to tell us how they feel.”
Prietz was the lone member of the Planning Commission to vote against advancing the marijuana ordinance to the Township Board. He cited concerns over increased drug test failures for workers in Saugatuck Township.
Helmrich believes that by leaving the decision up to another vote, it would only make regulating businesses more difficult for the township.
“It was pointed out by our legal counsel that if you do go the election route, we — the township government and the Planning Commission — would lose some of our authority in terms of setting up restrictions and controlling the number and the placement of such businesses,” he said. “It’s kind of a danger, you open it up to more of a clean slate. That was obviously turned down, but if it was approved, it could obviously have a big impact in terms of how these businesses are allowed to exist here.”