Consumers have formed long lines to purchase marijuana products and businesses have announced major expansion plans in Washtenaw County as legal recreational cannabis has rolled out in Michigan. But some advocates have concerns about making sure the benefits of the industry truly extend to residents of all races and economic backgrounds.
Christina Montague is the owner of Huron View Dispensary, 3152 Packard Rd. in Ann Arbor, and the only woman of color in the state who owns a dispensary. She says the state's social equity program, established when Michigan voters approved legalizing recreational marijuana use, is a good start, but there's more to be done to promote equity in this new industry.
The aim of the Marijuana Regulatory Agency social equity program is to "promote and encourage participation in the marijuana industry by people from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and enforcement and to positively impact those communities." The program targets people who live in 41 Michigan communities that have been disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and enforcement. The city of Ypsilanti is the only qualifying municipality in Washtenaw County.
Those who have been to prison or who have served as caregivers under previous medical marijuana regulations can earn "points" on an application for the program. But Montague says that still leaves out a lot of African-American residents who could benefit from the billions of dollars flowing into Michigan's new recreational marijuana market.
"Many of them didn't trust (the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program for caregivers), so you don't come across a lot of African-Americans who are caregivers, and they don't get those points," Montague says.
She says she finds a lot of African-Americans want to get into the program but don't qualify for the majority of the points they'd benefit from.
Montague says she'd like to see Washtenaw County consider efforts similar to those she's seen under consideration in other cities. Several municipalities in Illinois and some city officials in Detroit are discussing whether to establish some kind of cannabis business development fund to help residents get into the recreational marijuana industry by offsetting some of the licensing fees that are prohibitively expensive for those most in need of social equity.
Montague says the industry is moving toward having trained botanists and chemists on staff, developing new strains or new cannabis products. Developing high-paying jobs in those areas could also be a social equity benefit in Michigan.
Robbin Pott is the founder of Pott Farms, a new farming business in Augusta Township with a social equity mission. She's concerned that the recreational marijuana business will be taken over by large corporations run by white men who are already rich, rather than giving opportunities to those who could benefit most from the flourishing new market.
"In some of the bigger facilities, you have eight or ten executives in the front office making big money and paying their growers $10 an hour," Pott says. "They cut corners and don't care for the plants or respect the people who grow them."
Her solution to the issue was to start Pott Farms, a business with a mission to promote "social, environmental, and economic justice through the responsible production of high-quality cannabis."
The business builds on Pott's background in law and child welfare. She is a lawyer and researcher at the University of Michigan Law School and Ford School of Public Policy who has worked at the law school’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic. She also simultaneously served as executive director of the civil legal aid program called the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, assistant director of the National Quality Improvement Center on the Representation of Children in Child Welfare, and as a staff attorney representing children and parents in child protection proceedings.
Pott Farms' ultimate goals are similar to Pott's goals as a lawyer: to help low-income families and formerly-homeless individuals gain skills in the burgeoning legal cannabis industry and lift themselves out of poverty. Though the program hasn't taken on its first trainees yet, the plan is to employ social workers to help craft the program and help individuals and families gain stability and security.
Currently, the farm is growing industrial hemp because Augusta Township is one of the many municipalities in Michigan that opted to prohibit marijuana businesses. But Pott says the business will eventually transition to the recreational marijuana market, and most of the farming skills are transferable from hemp to cannabis.
Alex Thomas, a community advocate who lives in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood, thinks that Ypsi Township, as the second-largest municipality in the county, should have had more of a say on how equity issues will play out. For instance, the state determined it would target cities that had poverty levels of 30% or above, which leaves Ypsi Township out, since its poverty level is around 16%.
"But that 30% number comes to only about 6,000 people in the city of Ypsilanti," he says. "A 16% poverty rate in the township represents 9,000 people, and (the township's poorest residents) are concentrated in areas within five miles of the city."
Thomas also expresses concern that many Michigan municipalities including Ypsilanti Township are banning marijuana businesses, keeping African-Americans and economically challenged residents from earning some of the dollars coming in from the new recreational market.
He says that highlights the disconnect between the township's government and its residents. 69% of township residents voted in favor of Proposal 1, which legalized recreational cannabis in the state.
"My being upset with the ban is not really about cannabis but about democracy, economic development, and social equity," Thomas says.
He hopes township officials will revisit the issue in a year or two now that they've seen millions of dollars pouring into the local recreational marijuana industry in just a few months. Thomas says he'd also like to see the township undertake a serious feasibility study of whether the township's farm land would be appropriate for growing marijuana.
"We could become a cultivation center and support the local cannabis industry and build a whole culture around it," Thomas says. "I'd like to see the township seriously engage in this billion-dollar industry and see how to best take advantage of it and become leaders in social equity in this new marijuana industry."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos by Doug Coombe.