On November 6, Michigan voters came to the polls in record numbers, showing up 4.3 million strong, the highest turnout for a midterm election in the state in nearly 50 years. Their collective voice reverberated across the ballot as they elected the state’s second woman governor, the first openly LBTQ+ person elected statewide and passed the Marijuana Legalization Initiative (Proposal 1), making the Mitten State the 10th in the country to legalize recreational marijuana.
Proposal 1 passed by more than half-a-million votes and legalizes recreational use and possession for persons 21 years of age or older and enacts a tax on marijuana sales.
On its face, Proposal 1 may seem to be a win for those who like to indulge now and again without the fear of prosecution; but it could be the foundation for creating modern and equitable drug laws and ensuring that our most vulnerable populations face one less barrier in accessing secure housing, employment and food stability. Additionally, according to various reports, it could bring about annual tax revenue in excess of
We talked to local four women who work or volunteer in cannabis-related fields and got their take on what legalization could mean for our city.
“If it can work here, it can work anywhere.”-Shoran Williams
Tami VandenBerg is the co-owner of The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme and the former executive director of Well House, a nonprofit that provides low-cost housing for people experiencing homelessness.
A long-time advocate for legalizing marijuana, she is a board member of MILegalize, an organization established in 2015 to work toward statewide legalization. On November 6, VandenBerg was in Detroit with nearly 100 other cannabis activists, some who had worked for decades to bring about the sea change they were witnessing.
“I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” VandenBerg expressed as she described watching the numbers come in when it became clear that Michigan voters were going to end marijuana prohibition and usher the state into a new era.
Prior to becoming a business owner, VandenBerg was a social worker and frequently came across people who had limited or no access to state sponsored resources due to a marijuana charge on their record.
“I saw it over and over again,” she said. “People coming through the door, disproportionately people of color, and I would try to get them jobs and subsidized housing, and having a marijuana charge on their record made that really hard.”
VandenBerg began digging, determined to solve the problem from the root. What she unearthed convinced her that ending marijuana prohibition would be vital to elevating underserved communities.
“What I found was that a lot of what people think about pot, there is no scientific bases for,” she said.
Historically, minority communities have been the most deeply impacted by marijuana prohibition. A 2013 study by the ACLU found that whites and blacks used marijuana at nearly the same rates, but blacks were nearly four times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related charges. VandenBerg notes that approximately 20,000 people a year are arrested across the state for marijuana-related offenses, and she is thrilled that such a large number of people will no longer be negatively impacted in such a way.
“That is a giant win,” VandenBerg expressed. “My second hope is that we are going to get expungements, so people with charges no longer have to deal with that when they apply for housing and assistance. Those things alone will be extremely helpful for all of us.”
In July of 2018, the City Commission approved an ordinance allowing medical marijuana in Grand Rapids, ten years after voters passed a statewide ballot initiative that established a medical cannabis program for serious and terminally ill patients. The city began accepting applications for medical marijuana facilities in January of this year and has so far received 90 applications. As of this writing, the City of Grand Rapid website states that the City Commission has not yet indicated their intent for local action regarding Proposal 1.
According to colorado.gov, Colorado saw recreational marijuana sales of $1.5 billion for 2018 alone.
VandenBerg says that achieving equity and ensuring that a diverse range of communities have equal access to participate in the forthcoming “green rush,” in Michigan is critical and only achievable through intentional policy.
“In terms of the legal industry, I want it to be fair. I want people to have an opportunity to get into it.”
Shoran Williams and Joslin Monahan are attorneys at Cannalex Law, a law firm located in Grand Rapids that specializes in marijuana law. Williams joined Cannalex in March of 2018. She moved to Grand Rapids
from Atlanta, where she established her own firm,
“It was the beginning of the marijuana explosion in Michigan,” Williams, who has been practicing law for 25 years, said. “It was new ground about how the laws are going to be interpreted and enforced. Trying to get marijuana accepted in West Michigan seemed like the perfect fit for me… making the best arguments and getting people to understand what marijuana can be, what it can mean for businesses, what it could mean for families, what CBD can mean for health — figuring out what all of that means and putting it in a format that everybody can accept, is fun.”
Monahan had her own real estate law practice in Montana before she moved back to Michigan, her home state. While working with a substantial real estate client, people began asking her questions about real estate in relation to marijuana facilities. When she began working with her own marijuana clients, she would call Bob Hendricks, a partner in Cannalex and whom she and Williams refer to as the “marijuana law guru of Michigan,” for advice. She officially joined the firm in 2017. Like Williams, she is thrilled to be traversing a new frontier in law.
“What is nice about marijuana is that it is new to everyone,” Monohan said. “It’s fun to learn something new.”
Monohan and Williams represent a wide range of clients, from large corporations to caregivers to investors to medical marijuana patients and more.
Monohan says that while it is too early to tell what the laws will be for marijuana businesses in Michigan (the State Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has until December 6,
“A lot of our clients are going out to Las Vegas, California, Colorado and Washington to see what products people are making, how they are producing it, what people like to buy and what the stores look like,” she said.
Williams adds that the financial potential for the recreational market in Michigan is predicted to be second only to California.
“California will always be the biggest, Colorado will be the boutique, and Michigan is poised to be behind California in terms of what we provide, how we provide it and the number of businesses in the state that provide marijuana in its various forms,” she stated.
A key indicator of this is that among the 30-some states where medical marijuana is legal, at more than a quarter of a million, Michigan has the second most medical marijuana patients. The success of the industry in the Mitten could sway more conservative areas of the country, such as the South and the Great Plains, toward ending marijuana prohibition, because, as William puts it, “If it can work here, it can work anywhere.”
Roberta King is the owner of Canna Communication, a multi-pronged communications firm exclusive to the cannabis industry. King represents law firms, such as Cannalex, growers, dispensaries and more.
King notes that the passing of Proposal 1 demonstrates that the underlying narrative about marijuana that has prevailed for decades is changing.
“It’s difficult because marijuana has been underground for so long,” she commented. “It has gone from, ‘Keep it on the down low,’ to, ‘You need to have a website and get your name out there.’ The message to the public is that this is a legal substance now and let’s learn about it.”
King worked to help Proposal 1 pass by doing what she does best: educating people through communication. She gave talks to the ACLU and other groups who wanted to hear about legalization and its potential benefits for the citizens of Michigan. She was in Detroit with VandenBerg when the election results came in, a moment she describes as “unbelievable.”
“I never thought it would happen, but it happened. It was very exciting, very rewarding and very hopeful, not just for people who own marijuana businesses, but the idea that expungements could happen. When
Prop 1 passed, it gave businesses the confidence that things could be really great for Michigan, better than what we thought.”
King notes that while Proposal 1 is a huge victory, there are still challenges ahead. She advises citizens to be diligent in monitoring how their communities manage licensing and regulation.
“The people who want to be in and want to do something in cannabis, if you live in an area where most of the citizens voted for recreational marijuana, and your city or township opts out, then you need to either run for office or start a petition drive to move it back on the ballet,” she said. “That is the kind of activism that is really important to make everything more inclusive.”
To keep up with medical and recreational marijuana in Grand Rapids, visit grandrapidsmi.gov/Government/Programs-and-Initiatives/Medical-Marihuana.