FERNDALE — While in a marijuana shop late Tuesday afternoon, a handful of Port Huron officials passed around a small container of product.
City Councilman Jeff Pemberton joked about getting photographed inspecting the item. City Manager James Freed pointed out the container’s lens that gave them an extra-close view once they smelled it.
They were visiting the merchandise area of LIV, a Ferndale cannabis dispensary, and the container was designed for medical users to look without touching what’s inside. With less than six months before Port Huron’s temporary ban on recreational marijuana businesses sunsets, officials said they wanted to keep an open mind in learning how some facilities are run.
“We’ve had a lot of people who came to council and wanted to have the ability to purchase marijuana … in the city of Port Huron,” said Mayor Pauline Repp. “Regardless of how I feel personally about marijuana, if we’re going down that route, I want to make sure that we have the right operators that come in, only a limited amount and in the right location.
“And professionally done, I don’t want to see just a lot of schlocky things going up. I just want to do our due diligence. We said we were going to do it, and I thought we needed to do this tour.”
LIV is preparing to transition from a medical facility catering exclusively to card-holding patients to an adult-use store. As part of a joint special meeting between Port Huron council and planning commission members, it was one of two facilities officials stopped by Tuesday, and the only one to grant a full tour. Operators at both LIV and the Green Buddha Cannabis Co. told officials they were hoping to make the transition with Ferndale officials this spring.
Port Huron and communities across St. Clair County formally opted out of the recreational pot law approved by voters in November 2018. Unlike its neighbors, however, the city’s ban wasn’t permanent.
Now, officials said they’re beginning the research process before approaching what their ordinance opting in — if they do — would look like, and like Repp, other Port Huron leaders said they were setting their personal opinions aside.
Planning Commissioner Joe Bond compared the experience to what Planning Director David Haynes advised when he was appointed to the commission several months ago.
“‘You have to be an individual. You have to be mindful of not trying to … drag that too much into your city duties,’” he said. “That’s why I’m asking questions — trying to understand it from the perspective of what it could do for the city.”
What did the dispensary look like?
At LIV in Ferndale, there was a common theme among the business’ amenities.
Their extensive heating and cooling system, a break area to help separate employees’ regular food from the store, how long security camera footage data is maintained, a pull-in area for product drop-offs and delivery departures and a slew of other features — many of them one LIV operator said were things they incorporated into their business that weren’t required by the state.
“Just a lot of things like that prevents a lot of potential issues,” said Dennis Zoma, a Metro Detroit businessman and one of the owners of the dispensary.
LIV featured some merchandise sales of CBD products, carry containers, rolling papers and other materials that weren’t strictly marijuana-related. Zoma said they wanted to keep some items separate, enabling other members of the public who aren’t state-verified marijuana patients a chance to shop
Also in the front area of the facility was a tablet lounge that allowed patients to make selections online.
A set of automatic double doors — usually only accessible to visitors with a LIV host escorting them — opened for the Port Huron group to the formal merchandising area. Those doors, like others on the grounds, opened with the wave of an access pass card as part of a system Zoma said tracks who’s going where and when in the facility.
Inside, there were two halves. One was with staff members waiting behind a low-lit counter for patients, while the other was largely empty. That latter, Zoma said, was where they planned to stock the adult-use products.
Elsewhere, officials visited a processing room attached to the pull-in area, as well as a storage vault, and an office equipped with an array of security camera screens.
While in the pull-in area, Zoma said they took a lot of precautions to prevent potential thefts and other incidents, adding transporters have “got a huge target on their back.” But so far, he said they’ve had zero incidents.
After the tour, Bond said he had “less reservations” about the idea of marijuana businesses in Port Huron, “if it’s done right.”
Not everyone may have been as swayed.
Port Huron Police Chief Joe Platzer and Capt. Marcy Kuehn also attended the joint visit, and Platzer, who’s previously shared his dislike about introducing legal marijuana use, added, “We’re here to observe and learn, but this isn’t going to change my mind.”
What are the future logistics?
Moving forward, Port Huron officials said they’ll begin to approach potentially developing an ordinance draft that opts back in to state recreational marijuana laws.
They didn’t indicate what that timeline would be, but Freed told Zoma that it was the “intent of our council to have it in place by July.”
Repp said the discussion would land first in the planning commission, where she expects members of the public to have an initial chance to comment. Then, it’ll come before council for two formal readings, like other ordinances, before it could be enacted.
Freed cautioned officials they could be approached by individuals who lobby for the cannabis industry or want to start a business.
“I’m inundated with phone calls. You will get those phone calls, as well,” he said. “You can assume those emails are being logged and those phone calls are being recorded. They may want to say, ‘What side of town do you think?’ Or they’ll call and say, ‘I’m looking at this building on 24th Street. Do you think that’ll be in the area?’ Anything I say that would indicate a reason to buy that building and it doesn’t happen, they will sue us.”
Zoma said local government officials shouldn’t respond to inquiries, instead designating “one person to direct to” for answers. “Not everyone has the best of intentions,” he said.
“I work with a bunch of municipalities across Michigan. I work with staff. I help them out with their ordinance. Us as an organization, I understand your guys’ position,” he said. “Us wanting to go into a specific municipality, we obviously don’t look for a leg up. Because God forbid we got an application in with you guys and it got approved and (if) anybody ever found out you guys wanted us in there — any reason whatsoever, even if it was the best thing for the city — you’ve got to make the vetting process clear and transparent all the way across.”
Freed said they could design an ordinance in such a way as to “naturally weed people out” by putting in restrictions that require a certain capital investment or development deadlines.
Officials also talked about how many facilities to allow, and Zoma suggested a city the size of Port Huron allow two.
Some officials said it was too soon to speculate the outcome for the city’s marijuana options.
Others like Bond said they thought it was an opportunity to be the first in a region at something new.
“I think our town’s got to pick. Do you want to be an industrial town or a tourist town? There’s already been articles written … ‘Michigan’s dry Thumb.’ Every municipality from Bad Axe to St. Clair said, ‘No, not here,’” Bond said. “There’s something to being the Kleenix, meaning the first to market. No one calls it the facial tissue. There’s an opportunity. Even though I have no plans to frequent it, I think it could do things for the city.”
Jackie Smith is the local government reporter for the Times Herald. Have questions or a story idea? Contact her at (810) 989-6270 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.
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