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Residents raise concerns about ‘Marijuana Heights’

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published August 29, 2019


MADISON HEIGHTS — In 2008 and 2018, voters in Michigan approved the legalization of medical marijuana and recreational marijuana, respectively.

And this year, the first two medical marijuana licenses were awarded in the city of Madison Heights. Both businesses will grow, manufacture and distribute the product, and both are pledging substantial donations to local groups.

But increasingly, residents are speaking up about the businesses, urging caution.

Mark Kimble, president of the Madison District Public Schools Board of Education, said he would turn down any money offered by a marijuana business.

Alternative Rx LLC — one of the two licensees, set to open in the former Madison Athletic Club at 2 Ajax Drive — has pledged $10,000 annually for the district’s summer camp fees, summer camp equipment and helmet refurbishing costs. The other licensee is GS Ashley LLC, which will occupy the site of the former Fairlanes Bowling Alley, located at 29600 Stephenson Highway.

“Our board would still have to consider it, but I myself would not support accepting donations from a tobacco or liquor company — what you might call vice earnings — and I feel that this would fall under the same category,” Kimble said. “I personally don’t feel comfortable accepting money from an industry that could be a negative influence on our kids.”  

Likewise, Kimberly Heisler, executive director of the Madison Heights Community Coalition, said that after much deliberation, her group’s board has decided to not accept donations from any marijuana businesses. Alternative Rx was also planning to donate to the Community Coalition.

Heisler said that the decision to turn down the money was not one made lightly. The donation was a substantial sum of money that the group would have used strictly for the prevention of youth substance use and abuse, and for student programming.

She also said that the Community Coalition appreciates the benefits of medical marijuana for those suffering from chronic pain and other ailments. At the same time, however, there are potential risks for the community’s youth, and her group felt it was important to stay consistent in its messaging.   

“We are hesitant and cautious with how accepting money from medical marijuana businesses can be perceived, and if taking the money goes against what we stand for,” Heisler said. “There is definitely a concern (about normalizing marijuana). The perception of harm has already gone down among students, and we know that when perception goes down, use goes up. We have a major task ahead of us, and that is convincing students that using marijuana is risky and harmful to their bodies — especially their precious young brains.

“We need students to be empowered to make positive life choices, and provide them with opportunities to learn how to be leaders. We need to provide students with safe and fun activities to occupy their time when risky behaviors tend to happen, such as after the homecoming dance that is quickly coming up,” she said. “What we don’t need is for students to think that just because these businesses are opening up in Madison Heights, that we think students using marijuana is OK.”

Heisler added that while there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug, there is evidence to support that if students engage in one risky behavior, such as vaping or smoking, then they are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors as well.

“Furthermore, marijuana use can lead to the development of problem use — known as marijuana use disorder — which takes the form of addiction in severe cases,” Heisler said, noting that students who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Cindy Holder — a former member of the Madison Heights City Council, and a former trustee of the MDPS Board of Education — said she has concerns about the proximity of the businesses to major bus routes and places frequented by kids, such as the Red Oaks Youth Soccer Complex.

“My concern is this makes marijuana more accessible,” Holder said. “The people buying are supposed to have cards and be medically incapacitated in some way, but in reality that’s not always the case. And I’d just hate to see it being bought and sold in places where we know that kids are going to be, especially if it has the potential of bringing any kind of dangerous element.”

Kimble said that the dangers of medical marijuana businesses include how they can be lucrative targets for crime. Since marijuana is still outlawed at the federal level, banks generally won’t work with marijuana-related businesses, and so they tend to keep cash on-site, he noted. This would make them appealing targets for armed robberies, break-ins, smash and grabs, and other crimes that endanger residents and put a strain on local law enforcement.

He also said he’s concerned about the traffic the businesses will create, drawing people from across metro Detroit — some of whom may not be responsible users of the product. In addition, there’s the question of the smell these businesses may produce. Kimble said he doesn’t want the city to become known as “Marijuana Heights.”  

And conversely, if marijuana someday becomes legal at the federal level as well, then another problem emerges, Kimble said. Namely, marijuana would be available at every convenience store, outcompeting the medical marijuana businesses that came to town. The heavy investments made by those companies would then fall through, leaving Madison Heights with unfulfilled commitments.

“And the 10% tax generated by these businesses will go to the state, not the city,” Kimble said. “I think these businesses are a bad idea, and I understand why cities like Royal Oak have passed on the idea. It’s like how people may enjoy porn in the privacy of their homes, but that doesn’t mean they want adult bookstores in their communities. I don’t see any upside for our community, and it’s certainly not a good example for our children. Now when they go to stores with their parents and see dispensaries, in their head it will seem more acceptable to get their hands on marijuana and use it.”

Madison Heights City Councilman David Soltis agrees with these concerns, and said that he will continue to vote against medical marijuana and recreational marijuana businesses in the city.

“These businesses will be all over the place if the city continues to go down this route. I don’t want us to look back in hindsight and realize that we went for a short-term gain but wound up with a long-term problem,” Soltis said. “These guys are coming in here, offering all kinds of goods and money to open marijuana businesses, but I don’t buy the facade. I think it will come to worse issues for Madison Heights. I fully trust law enforcement and I take their counsel very seriously, and they’re saying that this is problematic at best.”

Brian Hartwell, the mayor of Madison Heights, has been a driving force behind the marijuana businesses opening up in town. He said in an email that those who are against it are in the minority and are on the wrong side of history.

“First, I am a representative of the people of Madison Heights, who in overwhelming majorities in 2008 and 2018 supported medical and recreational marijuana. My office and those of City Council members are to fulfill the viewpoints of the residents. … My personality is only expressed in how I execute the will of the people,” Hartwell said. “Second, I initially approached big industrial medical marijuana operations as a method to end the unregulated era of medical marijuana growing in the basements of single-family homes.”

The mayor compared the situation to the rise of bootleggers during the Prohibition era. He said that decriminalizing marijuana and allowing regulated businesses to sell it will reduce the number of people who make and sell it illegally.

“Think about it,” Hartwell said. “When was the last time you bought whiskey made in someone’s backyard?”

The mayor also said he is confident that the city’s medical marijuana operators will be “solid community partners” who will donate hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to schools, charities, city projects and outreach programs to prevent youth from abusing substances.

“I suppose the opponents of medical marijuana can ignore the majority of their peers and ignore the reality that Michigan is a marijuana state. The opponents of marijuana who serve on the City Council can count their days in elected office if they continue to thwart the will of the voters,” Hartwell warned. “Those opponents also lose the opportunity to attract, retain and regulate the best actors in the business. The reality is that marijuana has been in our neighborhoods for years. The new state laws allow us to regulate this reality to the benefit of us all.”