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 corporation counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell told the Free Press that 283 dispensaries were identified last year, all of which were operating illegally.
"None of them were operating lawfully," Hollowell said. "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."
Hollowell said an additional 51 are in the pipeline to be closed in the coming weeks. That would bring the closures up to 218 and a step closer to the goal laid out by officials to only have 50 citywide.
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, Hollowell said, for approval.
The city's medical marijuana ordinances took effect March 1, 2016, and 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.
Hollowell said shops are also prohibited from operating within 1,000-foot radius of a church, school, park, liquor store, other dispensaries and other places considered a drug-free zone under city law, such as libraries or child care centers. They also must close by 8 p.m.
However, store operators are able to apply to the Board of Zoning Appeals for a variance to operate within those boundaries.
"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. "There was very significant public input in this process."
There are an estimated 244,125 registered medical marijuana users in Michigan.
The city has been enforcing the ordinances via court orders and administrative actions.
"We take the report from the team and then we attach that to a complaint that’s filed in Wayne County Circuit Court," Hollowell said. "We ask the court for order of closure and padlocking. ... We haven't lost one of those cases yet."
Community members and leaders like Winfred Blackmon have expressed concern over the years about the large number of dispensaries in the city.
Blackmon, who is the chairman of the Metropolitan Detroit Community Action Coalition, a group of community leaders from across the city, also heads a major homeowners group in northwest Detroit called the Schaefer-7/8-Lodge Association. Blackmon said he isn't against marijuana usage for sick individuals, but he just 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."
Hollowell said the city is aware of several dispensaries that are clustered in a particular area, like 7 Mile, 8 Mile and Grand River Avenue.
"There are other areas, but as we look at an overall map, there are clusters and those are the areas that we do focus on," he said. "We started out focusing in on the facilities that are in drug-free zones and then to the areas where there are these clusters. We've been successful in the closure rate, but there's more to do."
Hollowell said the city has a dedicated unit of seven attorneys in its legal department that specifically focuses on dispensary-related issues, at both the enforcement phase and the licensing and regulatory level.
Earlier this month, petition language that would legalize marijuana for recreational uses was turned in to the Secretary of State with the hope of appearing on the 2018 ballot. Hollowell said the city is aware of the effort and is monitoring it appropriately in case it appears on the ballot and is eventually passed.
"A number of states have legalized medicinal marijuana or legalized marijuana, even not for medical purposes," Hollowell said. "There are models from other states out there in how that’s been regulated."