LANSING -- Over a year after Mayor Virg Bernero pushed for a moratorium to halt the opening of new medical marijuana establishments, there's confusion about its enforcement.
There's debate about whether it's being enforced at all.
"There’s no precedent for this," 3rd Ward City Council Member Adam Hussain said. "That's the problem."
Hussain chair of council's Committee on Public Safety, accuses Bernero's administration of being negligent. Hussain said he doesn't see it giving its best effort to determine if any establishments have opened since the moratorium was set on May 21, 2016. Estimates on the number of dispensaries in the city range from 60 to more than 70.
City Council approved the moratorium with a 6-0 vote, acting about three months afterthe Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce urged Bernero and council to enact a moratorium because its members found the lack of regulations "extremely alarming."
Bernero said in a statement that Hussain should stop "whining" about how the moratorium is enforced and instead finish a proposed city ordinance to regulate and license marijuana establishments. Bernero said the city needs the ordinance because the state is moving forward with new laws to regulate a growing industry. He believes focusing on the ordinance is the best way to clarify the regulation of marijuana establishments, especially dispensaries.
"The longer City Council dithers on this issue, the more Lansing stands to lose," said Bernero, who deems dispensaries "here to stay because they provide a vital service to thousands of patients."
A study by New Frontier Data says the national medical marijuana industry will hit $24 billion in state-by-state sales by 2025.
For now, establishments like dispensaries operate at their own peril, without final state regulations or a city ordinance in place. Council and City Attorney Jim Smiertka's office define marijuana establishments as any non-residential land use "involving growth, distribution, storage or use of marijuana."
Some council members have received calls from constituents about possible violations of the moratorium, but don't know how many of the calls became formal complaints.
City Attorney Jim Smiertka wrote in an email that 24 moratorium complaints have been referred to his office since May 21, 2016, and they have either been resolved or confirmed not to be a violation. As of May 10, two complaints were under review, Smiertka said.
The city lacks a clear record of how many establishments were open before the moratorium and how many are open now. Smiertka said his office is trying to determine the number of open establishments and their locations by gathering information from "all available resources."
As of Friday, the website weedmaps.com listed 22 establishments. Google listed 19; Leafly.com listed 41; wheresweed.com listed 74.
Police Chief Mike Yankowski wrote in an email that the number of establishments has fluctuated between 40 and 70 over the last three years. He said violating the moratorium is not a criminal offense, but a civil matter related to the city's zoning code. As a result, all complaints are handled by Smiertka's office, which makes "appropriate referrals to the city's zoning enforcement staff as needed," Yankowski said.
The city has a marijuana ordinance on the books, created in 2011, that includes zoning regulations, but no licensing.
With limited resources, Yankowski said the Police Department puts its priorities on addressing violent crime and the national opioid epidemic.
"For the past two years, we have seen more individuals die due to heroin overdoses than homicides or fatal car accidents," Yankowski said.
Council's public safety committee is working with Smiertka's office to craft zoning and licensing regulations that will coordinate with new state laws for regulating marijuana businesses.
Last week, the committee had concerns about whether a change of ownership or a relocation could be considered a violation of the moratorium.
Smiertka's office doesn't consider those two scenarios violations. However, that legal stance could change. The committee's next meeting is at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.
Hussain said a memorandum from Smiertka's office that directs the city on how to enforce the moratorium "wouldn't hurt." He also questioned why Bernero's administration met the Lansing Chamber's request to establish the moratorium and urged council to do so as well.
“I think they have done everything they can to look at that language (in the moratorium) and kind of exploit it so they don’t have to enforce it," Hussain said of Bernero's administration. "What was the initial motivation? I think it was to make it look like something was being done when nothing was being done at all.”
Chamber officials have stayed consistent with support for a moratorium and enforcement.
Steve Japinga, the chamber's director of government relations, said last week in a statement the chamber supports an ordinance that creates "common sense regulations" that provide safe access to establishments, quality dispensaries, enforcement of zoning, a "vigorous" application process, product testing and "appropriate" fees.
At-Large Council Member Carol Wood said it's naive to think City Council's public safety committee hasn't been serious about its work on the ordinance. She warned that city licenses for establishments, offered under a new ordinance, wouldn't be valid until the state starts issuing its own licenses for these businesses.
Wood declined to speculate whether Bernero will support City Council's ordinance if it is approved before his final term as mayor ends Dec. 31.
“Virg can spew all he wants," Wood said. "But the issue becomes if, say tomorrow, we adopted a licensing ordinance, we can't get licenses out until the state finishes theirs.