Amid Much Talk of Racial Justice, Council Approves Three Recreational Marijuana Shops in East Lansing

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Mayor Aaron Stephens at the Aug. 11, 2020, virtual meeting.

“We’re a progressive city and we work towards righting our wrongs. Diversity, inclusion, and equity go beyond words in East Lansing  – and so I want to ask – will you actively engage in our crusade for social justice in policies, programs, and/or support [systems] that repair the harm from the War on Drugs?”

That was the prepared question newly-installed East Lansing City Council member Dana Watson put last week to one of three applicants seeking licenses from Council to sell recreational marijuana here.

The three applications were coming to Council for a decision on Aug. 11, and in the end, all the applicants were asked essentially the same thing. In response, all said they intended to help people of color who have been disproportionately negatively impacted by the War on Drugs. And all were approved unanimously.

Now, adults over the age of 21 will be able to buy marijuana for non-medical use at three East Lansing locations that are also already approved for medical marijuana provisioning.

Only one of those locations is already open – Pleasantrees, at 1950 Merritt Road, operated by RJB Enterprises.

Pleasantrees is located at 1950 Merritt Road, near Haslett Road.

Answering a question from Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg, RJB Enterprise’s Michael Yassay said business there has been going well but that they turn away 20-30 potential customers a day who lack medical marijuana cards. He said they hoped to sell recreational marijuana to give those people access and to “educate people to consume the products properly.”

A second, entirely separate East Lansing operation is set to open very soon. That’s Skymint, at 3315 Coolidge Road, operated by Green Peak Industries.

The third – the only one downtown and the one closest to campus – is still in the midst of significant construction, converting what was an apartment building into a retail operation. It’s located at 1234 E. Grand River Ave., and will be operated by Compassionate Associates.

Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi

1234 E. Grand River Ave. how it looks now (left) and how it is proposed to look for a marijuana retail operation.

The fraternity next to that operation has previously raised objections, as did MSU’s last (interim) President Satish Udpa. Those objections did not get in the way of approval.

A discussion that hinged on racial justice, not recreational marijuana per se

Only one citizen came live to the Aug. 11 meeting to weigh in on these applications to sell pot recreationally in East Lansing: Anne Hill, President of the Hawk Nest neighborhood on the City’s far north side. She called in to say she personally opposed approval of retail adult-use marijuana here at this time.

Hill noted that in 2017 she had brought forward a petition signed by over 125 residents opposing the introduction of marijuana growing, processing, testing, or transportation activities in the City. (At the time, marijuana sales were not on the table.)

Speaking during public comment last Tuesday, Hill proposed a one-year moratorium on decisions around recreational marijuana sales to allow time first to get a better handle on concerns about several issues, including Covid-19 and its impact as MSU students return. She said it would be best to see how things go in other communities first.

But Council members did not seem to have any concerns about the sale or use of recreational marijuana in East Lansing. Their concerns were centered entirely around the question of whether these operations would help address racial disparities and social concerns.

Screenshot of the Aug. 11, 2020, virtual meeting.

Only Mayor Aaron Stephens was on Council when the relevant ordinances were passed, so he tried to explain as best he could why there was no provision in East Lansing’s laws for compelling marijuana retailers to address the disparate concerned caused by the War on Drugs.

The State of Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency has a whole “Social Equity” program aimed at this issue, and East Lansing is eligible to participate in that program.

But East Lansing’s Council has so far not opted to participate, despite discussions at Planning Commission and past Councils having been urged to consider it. In East Lansing, marijuana regulation has focused on zoning concerns and a desire to direct money at something other than racial disparities per se.

Ordinance 1469, the law providing for the sale of recreational marijuana in East Lansing, was passed in October 2019 by the Council that included Stephens, then-Mayor Mark Meadows, then-Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann, Ruth Beier, and Shanna Draheim.

That law required – as did the previously approved (Nov. 2018) law on medical marijuana sales – that marijuana retailers in East Lansing make “an annual donation in the amount of 1% of net profits from its operations or $5,000.000, whichever amount is greater” to a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization “largely benefitting the residents of East Lansing and organized and operated exclusively for purposes of improving the lives of people with low to moderate income, conserving or improving natural resources, or preventing cruelty to children or animals.”

Two new Council members asked sharp questions about the approach being taken

At this past week’s meeting, applicants for recreational licenses found themselves offering a hodgepodge of “social good” gestures to try to satisfy the desires of two very different Councils – the one that passed laws in 2018-2019 mandating that 1% of profits go to poorer people, environmental concerns, or preventing cruelty to children and animals, and the current Council that wants racial disparities addressed.

Green Peak’s Coolidge Road Skymint application was the first to come before  Council last week, and their representatives promised support for  expungement of nonviolent marijuana convictions, job training and scholarships for “victims of the War on Drugs,” and a donation to Haven House, which provides emergency shelter to families facing homelessness.

Ron Bacon at the Aug. 11, 2020, meeting.

In response, new Council member Ron Bacon said this “doesn’t feel intentional enough in giving,” that it didn’t feel “targeted.” He said the charitable effort here “feels random,” as if “checking a box.”

But Stephens noted the applicants were being guided by what the previous Councils had passed into law. Watson, in reply, said East Lansing had “really missed the boat” in terms of people of color benefitting from the industry moving into East Lansing.

In response, Council member Lisa Babcock, who had made the motion to approve Green Peak’s application, said she would be happy to withdraw it so that Council could revisit what it wants from these companies.

Lisa Babcock at the Aug. 11, 2020, meeting.

But in response, Bacon said his issue was with the law, not with the application, which he did not seek to derail.

Gregg agreed with Bacon’s desire to move forward, saying the applicants had “acted in good faith” and that they seemed cognizant of the kinds of social good the current Council was seeking. Gregg said the application was not worth delaying because of how a previous Council had opted to write the ordinance.

Watson agreed, and said she appreciated Green Peak’s conception of its ethical obligations. Unanimous approval followed.

Council next considered the application from Pleasantrees on Merritt Road. Their representative, Michael Yassay, also promised a donation to Haven House, as well as planting a tree for every pound of pot sold. He said the company was also planning to work with Habitat for Humanity, although that organization’s work has been interrupted by the pandemic.

This was the application that brought Watson’s question asking for a commitment to “actively engage in our crusade for social justice” to “repair the harm from the War on Drugs.” In response, Yassay said he would be “more than happy to connect” with Watson to work on whatever initiatives she thought important.

Dana Watson at the Aug. 11, 2020, meeting.

That application was subsequently approved, and someone on the line from the Pleasantrees’ team yelled “Mazel tov!”

Finally, Council considered the application from Compassionate Associates for 1234 E. Grand River Ave. That group’s attorney, Lance Boldrey of Dykema, immediately spoke to charitable giving and helping to address the War on Drug’s impact on persons of color. Boldrey said he hoped the industry would do a good job “shaming” those who didn’t get in line on this.

Boldrey promised attention to these issues in hiring, and applicant Jeffrey Griffin joined in to say Compassionate Associates would also be working on reducing the stigma and punishment of those who were unjustly serving long sentences for small-quantity drug offenses. He said he looked forward to sitting down with Watson to act on her suggestions.

Griffin also said Compassionate Associates is giving to Haven House in East Lansing and Children and Family Charities in Lansing, committing $40,000 to each organization annually. He also said the company would be donating $10,000 to the East Lansing Arts Commission, a favorite of Gregg’s.

Jessy Gregg at the Aug. 11, 2020, meeting.

The outcome did not leave the Council feeling satisfied

Before everyone voted in favor of this third application, Bacon took a moment to say, “I’m disappointed in how we are arriving here with this . . . in this community and in this country and in the greater Lansing area.” He said the scene represented a “gold rush” that is “passing by the people who would have benefitted the most from something like this, who were disparately impacted.”

Stephens agreed, saying he had fought on the past Council just to get marijuana sales to happen at all in East Lansing, and that he was glad now these other issues would be addressed. He said he was “hoping we can work together to address some of those concerns.”

Because the past Council opted to regulate marijuana in East Lansing via the zoning code, and because that Council greatly limited where sales could happen, only two other locations are presently available for recreational sales.

Those are on Michigan Ave., at the old Sawyer Pontiac dealership, next to the construction of the Red Cedar project, and on Merritt Road near Costco at the land sold via eBay. (Neither of those have started construction.)

The current Council can undo what previous Councils did. So, for example, this Council could allow sales at more locations, or require other kinds of giving.

But for the organizations that have now obtained approval, the approvals will stand based on the legal conditions in place at the time of approval. City Attorney Tom Yeadon confirmed this in response to questions from Council. That means they are only legally bound to follow the laws put in place by the previous Councils.

Correction: The original version of this article said that Watson had been pushing the issue of participation in the Social Equity program at Planning Commission. She brought it up once there, and other Commissioners have also brought it up. That sentence was deleted and the following added: “But East Lansing’s Council has so far not opted to participate, despite discussions at Planning Commission and past Councils having been urged to consider it.”

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