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Michigan’s cannabis industry is poised to grow exponentially over the next several years, but panelists during a recent forum said state and local policies currently are hindering the sector. Photo by iStock

Despite the legal status of cannabis in Michigan, a panel of experts recently said the fledgling industry is still struggling to translate its promise into prosperity, equity and sustainability.

The Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (MiSBF) this month hosted an online roundtable, “Can Michigan’s Cannabis Industry Achieve Equity and Prosperity?” to discuss the topic.

Experts at the Zoom-based forum agreed Michigan’s marijuana market is expected to grow exponentially and become a major economic force, but the state’s industry has significant barriers to growth and equal opportunity.

Speakers focused on equity, corporate responsibility and how state and local policies are impacting the industry. Topics included economic empowerment in areas of disproportionate impact, social equity, policy and best practices.

The panelists and moderators were as follows:

  • Margeaux Bruner, director of compliance and diversity, Red White & Bloom; leader, National Expungement Week (NEW); former political director, the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association
  • Tami VandenBerg, co-owner, The Meanwhile and The Pyramid Scheme; organizer and funder, DecriminalizeGR; board member, West Michigan Cannabis Guild; former board member, MILegalize
  • Denavvia Mojet, corporate impact strategist and legal compliance manager, Fluresh; organizer, NEW; executive director, Black and Brown Cannabis Guild; co-founder, Equity PAC
  • Co-moderated by Carissa Patrone, equity program manager, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum; and Alice Jasper, program director, Good for Michigan

Bruner kicked off the discussion by saying it’s a well-known fact the U.S. war on drugs declared in the 1970s has disproportionately affected people of color. An Americans for Civil Liberties study found people of color are about four times as likely on average to be arrested as white people, and in cities like Grand Rapids, historically about 15 times as likely. As Mojet noted during introductions, she didn’t see a lot of harm from marijuana use growing up in the predominately Black town of Benton Harbor, but she knew it was off-limits for her because the likelihood of arrest and imprisonment from possession of minor amounts was so high.

Bruner said while reaching social equity is partially about decriminalizing the substance and acknowledging the harm from arrests and stiff sentencing that disproportionately affects Black and brown users, it’s also about acknowledging that one policy — decriminalization — cannot undo years of oppression.

“That is a heavy lift for cannabis (legalization) to do,” she said. Instead, she said civic leaders also should be addressing the primary outcome of the war on drugs — criminal records, which lead to disenfranchisement from civic, economic, educational and housing opportunities. Mojet works in the expungement space, which aims to be a tangible step toward undoing harm and increasing opportunity.

Another barrier in the cannabis space, Bruner said, is the disproportionate distribution of wealth. Starting a cannabis business requires a high capital raise, and since the substance is still federally illegal, people cannot obtain loans from banks. An alternative is to use family resources, borrowing up to millions of dollars to start up. But those in communities of color do not always have access to those resources.

Likewise, as the distribution of licenses is capped at the municipal level and there are only a fixed number of licenses available for certain eligible properties, this causes the price of real estate to rise — another issue that disproportionately affects entrepreneurs of color, Bruner said.

“Looking really heavily at the entire economic landscape of America today, and the history of that, is the first step that we can take in creating any policy around this particular space,” she said.

VandenBerg echoed Bruner’s assertions. She said access to information about how to get a license and where to find property has been limited to those already in the know. Exclusionary zoning also is a problem, she said.

“If you need to hire your own urban planner for $50,000 to even find a piece of real estate, that’s exclusionary,” she said. “It’s everywhere, but particularly in Grand Rapids, with all these different ‘sensitive land uses.’ How do you even define a sensitive use, and how does (neighbor) input play in? The whole thing has been extremely complicated and has knocked out a huge portion of the population (from eligibility).”

She added marijuana businesses are zoned for commercial districts in Grand Rapids, not residential neighborhoods like Eastown; therefore, small, affordable properties available in neighborhoods are out of the question, and the properties in commercial districts are often giant, industrial-sized buildings that cost three times market value.

For people who live in municipalities that are opting out of granting marijuana licenses, such as Kentwood, Wyoming and others, the opportunity level is zero.

VandenBerg said she believes the solution lies first in education, getting people out of the “reefer madness” mindset that focuses on exaggerated risks out of fear.

“We’re dealing with 90 years of propaganda and misinformation, so just working on that stigma piece is significant,” she said.

Mojet said in addition to work on the state and local levels, descheduling marijuana as a controlled substance on the federal level will be an important step to removing barriers and increasing equity.

She also said cities need to think about reparations for those most negatively impacted by the war on drugs, such as setting aside a certain number of licenses for those wanting to get into the industry who have marijuana-related felony records. Cities also could benefit by lowering some of the “rigorous hurdles” they have created for people to qualify for licensure, she said.

“In the city of Grand Rapids, I think you have to have been a resident of Grand Rapids for 10 consecutive years between 1970-something and 2016 or 2018,” she said, noting for those who left for other opportunities or went away to college and came back, this is a problem.

Mojet said cities like Grand Rapids also need to focus on deregulation around properties to be more pro-marijuana, as well as giving access to information about how to build and sustain a viable marijuana business.

“In marijuana, it’s almost like a ‘good old boys club,’ where all the knowledge around how your supply chain works with growing, cultivating, best practices in retail, best practices in insurance and banking — those things just aren’t available to most entrepreneurs, especially entrepreneurs of color. Right now, we need more incubators, more mentorship programs … more pipelines for jobs.”

Mojet said her organization, Fluresh, is working to be more intentional on creating a pipeline of jobs for people of color who don’t want to be entrepreneurs but want to work in the industry.

Additionally, Fluresh and the Black and Brown Cannabis Guild are working with the Last Prisoner Project and the Roll It Up for Justice program on freeing Michael Thompson, who was sentenced to 60 years in prison for selling three pounds of marijuana to an undercover officer in the ’90s, as well as working with Michigan legislators on a package of bills that would make expungement automatic.

Bruner said through her involvement with National Expungement Week, she has learned expungement fairs are not the best way to clear records; that automatic expungement would be much fairer for felons, who currently have to fill out paperwork, get fingerprinted and file the information with their local clerk, then appear before a judge or magistrate to argue their case.

She said Illinois on Jan. 1 automatically expunged 11,000 records, proving that flipping a switch is a low-cost and less burdensome option that won’t clog up the justice system.

VandenBerg added while it’s great there are now several nonprofits and businesses doing advocacy and social equity work, it should ultimately be on the government to reverse harm from a drug war that allegedly was created to control minority populations and has been referred to as “The New Jim Crow.” She said she believes in addition to automatic expungements, state and federal governments should grant across-the-board pardons for anyone incarcerated today for marijuana-related offenses.

She argued that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needs to stop deporting people for marijuana possession, and Child Protective Services also needs to stop taking children away from Black and brown parents arrested for marijuana possession.

On the sustainability front, Mojet said the state needs to put more policies in place that are people- and profit-friendly to growing cannabis businesses and that don’t make it harder for them to operate.

VandenBerg said on the planet side, more development needs to be done with solar and wind energy, as cannabis growing is a very electricity-intensive and water-intensive business. She also sees problems with packaging, with tons of single-use plastic being used, and farming, with the use of non-organic fertilization that causes contamination. VandenBerg said opening up more properties also would cut down on fossil fuels because if more neighborhoods had dispensaries, people could walk or bike to them instead of driving.

Bruner said Red White & Bloom is using greenhouses that draw on solar energy to eliminate some of the electric emissions that other large-scale growing operations have.

The panelists said people can find more information on all of the above issues at the Black & Brown Cannabis Guild, bbcannabis.com; the Minority Cannabis Business Association, minoritycannabis.org; and the West Michigan Cannabis Guild, wmcannabis.org.

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