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Ferndale officials disagree on medical pot policy

October 13, 2010

FERNDALE — Cities across the region have been scrambling to regulate the growth and distribution of medical marijuana in recent months, but Ferndale could become one of the few communities to take a less stringent approach.

Voters in Ferndale have supported the decriminalization of medical marijuana by a strong majority on three separate occasions. In November 2005, 60 percent of voters approved a proposal to allow medical marijuana use within city limits. Then, three years later, 80 percent of voters expressed support for the state law legalizing the drug, while 77 percent also approved a local proposal to allow the National Organization for Positive Medicine to distribute medical marijuana in Ferndale with a court order.

However, city officials hold a variety of different opinions on the issue. Mayor Craig Covey has spoken out publicly on many occasions against regulating the use of medical marijuana in Ferndale. During his State of the City address on May 13, he sharply criticized other Oakland County cities that have attempted to ban the drug, calling their methods “reactionary policies based on fear.”

Recently, Covey reiterated his previous statement. “I think the way some cities responded to this new law was wildly overblown,” he said. “I’d rather see this regulated at the state level. … There are (14) states that have decriminalized the use of medical marijuana, some of which are much more conservative than Michigan. Marijuana has also been around for many years, and I think people have started to realize that it is far less dangerous than a lot of drugs that are perfectly legal.”

Covey pointed out that the interest level for medical marijuana in Ferndale is high: He knows there are registered patients and caregivers in the city, he said, because he is contacted about the issue “at least once or twice per week.” He also contended that concerns about the growth and distribution of the drug leading to problems for cities have been overstated, as all communities already have existing zoning ordinances in place to regulate business practices.

“In my discussions with the City Council, the Plan Commission and city staff,” Covey said, “there was no desire to put any sort of moratorium in place (against medical marijuana facilities). The law does not permit a constant stream of customers to be coming into these establishments. This is not going to be a profitable business model in any way, so I don’t see the need for any additional regulation.”

But Police Chief Mike Kitchen, like many law enforcement officials, believes that the use of medical marijuana could spell disaster for Michigan cities. He noted that the City Council previously rejected his recommendation to adopt an ordinance similar to that of Livonia, which bans the use of any drug that violates city, state or federal law.

“We at the Police Department are not in sync with what the council wants,” Kitchen admitted. “You can’t just do nothing, and even if you adopt a zoning ordinance, in some ways you are condoning the violation of federal law. It’s quite a conundrum. … All we can do is use existing laws to enforce this and keep compliance as close to the spirit of the (state) law as we can.”

Kitchen believes that based on issues he said other states have faced, medical marijuana facilities will lead to major problems, despite the best efforts of police. He pointed out that if harvested four times a year, the 60 marijuana plants that each caregiver is permitted to grow under state law could yield as much as $1.8 million in annual profits.

“And the bulk of that product is not going to the patients — it’s going right out the back door,” he said. “This is really not about medicine; this is about money. This law is going to degrade the quality of life in this region because it will ultimately lead to violence. Bad guys want this drug, and they react violently when they can’t get it.”

Other cities in southeast Oakland County share some of Kitchen’s concerns and have already taken action to regulate medical marijuana. In January, Huntington Woods passed an ordinance restricting growth and distribution of the drug by caregivers to the city’s business district. Three months later, Bloomfield Township passed a 120-day moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries while a zoning ordinance is crafted by city officials. Royal Oak, Berkley and Bloomfield Hills adopted similar measures shortly thereafter.

Birmingham, like Livonia, took the regulation process one step further by passing an ordinance that prohibits all medical marijuana activity in the city. The ordinance states that Birmingham will follow federal guidelines — which assert that all marijuana use is illegal — in cases where there is a conflict between state and federal law.

In Ferndale, Councilman Scott Galloway does not feel that city officials should institute an outright ban along the same lines as Birmingham, but he believes that some level of regulation must be established.

“I think we need to take a middle ground on this because, quite frankly, doing nothing is not an option,” said Galloway, an attorney. “It’s incumbent upon us to manage businesses within our city and to maintain the health and welfare of our residents. At a minimum, we have to establish a zoning ordinance to figure out where these businesses can be located because we don’t want to see them in residential areas.”

According to Community Development Director Marsha Scheer, Ferndale has already received seven applications from caregivers looking to open a medical marijuana grow operation and/or dispensary in the city. Some of the applicants hope to locate in the city’s industrial area, while others are seeking to set up shop along Hilton Road or within the downtown district.

Scheer has requested that each applicant fill out a preliminary checklist to provide city officials with essential information about their proposed facility. However, City Attorney Dan Christ pointed out that unless the City Council takes further action, each applicant would essentially be treated no differently than any other city business.

At the council’s June 14 meeting, Christ plans to provide an overview of the medical marijuana law to see if the council wants to take any steps to begin regulating the drug. At that point, it will likely require a compromise between a few widely varying viewpoints — whether it be Covey’s or Kitchen’s or Galloway’s — to determine what level of action, if any, is necessary in Ferndale.

Galloway, for one, does not want to make any rushed or drastic decisions.

“We’ve got to study this issue and take a measured approach to it,” he said. “I’m looking for something that recognizes the will of the voters but also protects our neighborhoods. … We just have to be very careful that we don’t lose control over these operations. We’re all still getting up to speed on this issue, but ultimately we have to do something. We can’t just sit on the sidelines.”


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