'Green rush': How the Legacy Detroit program aims to ensure social equity in local cannabis industry

Michigan’s first legal recreational marijuana sales were made in Ann Arbor in December 2019. Just a month later in Metro Detroit, it was the Downriver community of River Rouge where the first recreational pot shop opened in January 2020. Even in Oakland County, where Sheriff Michael Bouchard had long taken a hardline stance against medicinal marijuana provisioning centers operating in the county, which is presumably one of the reasons why there have been so many business-savvy medical marijuana centers lining Detroit’s side of Eight Mile, recreational marijuana retail began opening as early as March 2020.


So why, then, has it taken so long for recreational marijuana dispensaries to open in Detroit? Cannabis is big business, after all. In just its first year alone, statewide recreational pot sales reached nearly $440 million, Crain’s Detroit Business reported in November. And that’s even before the state’s biggest city got involved. And it's only going to grow. According to an economic analysis by Michigan State University, the retail value of marijuana sales is estimated to hit $3 billion a year when the market matures.


“Part of it was about making sure we don’t jump out there and just pass something to assist the city with revenue, which was especially important with [the financial challenges of] COVID-19,” says James Tate, a Detroit City Council member since 2009 who represents District 1.


“But the city will get its share. It’s more important to get residents involved from the very beginning.”


Councilman Tate is sponsor of the Medical Marijuana Facilities and Adult-Use Marijuana Establishments ordinance, which allows for recreational dispensaries to open in the city. Detroit City Council passed the ordinance in November 2020.


The ordinance itself was crafted by a team that included Tate, his staff, the mayor’s administration, and the city’s legal department.


“It was a two-year challenge. We had to come up with our principles, what are the things that we want to execute,” Tate says. “We said that we want no less than 50% of the business licenses to go to Detroiters.”


The city’s adult-use ordinance aims to do just that. For example: There are 70 adult-use retail establishment licenses available in total. If there are 35 licenses awarded to Detroiters, then up to 35 licenses can be awarded to out-of-towners. If there are only five licenses awarded to Detroiters, then only five out-of-towners can receive a license.

[Related: How the marijuana industry is taking root in the suburbs]


‘Legacy Detroit’ status


To fully reap the Detroit-centric benefits of the adult-use ordinance, residents must certify through the Detroit Legacy program. To become certified as a Legacy Detroiter, residents will have to pay a $100 registration fee and show documentation that they have lived in Detroit for 15 of the last 30 years; or have lived in Detroit for 13 of the last 30 years and are low income; or have lived in Detroit for 10 of the last 30 years and have a marijuana conviction or have a parent with a marijuana conviction.


Journalist and media strategist Darralynn Hutson recently registered as a Legacy Detroiter, hoping to open her own microbusiness or consumption lounge. Though she's still figuring out the particulars, Hutson wanted to seize the opportunity to register as a Legacy Detroiter now.


And what does that opportunity mean? Darralynn Hutson applied for the Legacy Detroit program.


“You mean other than generational wealth for my daughter?” Hutson says. “I’m going to be a Black woman in this industry and take this opportunity.”


Hutson’s attitude aligns with Tate’s primary goal of the local cannabis industry creating opportunity for Detroiters. Since the certification window first opened on Jan. 19, there have been 317 applications for Legacy Detroit status as of press time.


Tate is so far happy with the response.


“I know it’s going to go higher than 317. I do know that. But I’m not going to make any wild predictions about numbers. I’m just glad to see Detroiters getting involved and participating, and that we can give them a chance to dream and move toward that dream,” he says.


There are several benefits to enrolling in the Legacy Detroit program. In addition to the 50% rule, Legacy Detroiters receive a 99% discount on citywide license fees in 2021 and a 75% discount in 2022. They can purchase select city-owned property at a 75% discount. And they get a head start on outside interests.


While the application window for recreational marijuana business licenses opens to everyone on April 1, the application review process begins on May 1 for Legacy Detroiters. It doesn’t begin until June 16 for outside applicants with an existing medical marijuana license. And outside applicants without an existing medical marijuana license won’t be reviewed until Aug. 1.


“I hope to be part of this ‘green rush.’ I want to some way be a part of it,” Hutson says. “I haven’t decided whether I want to open a microbusiness or a consumption lounge yet but I wanted to make it official. Filling out the [Legacy Detroiter] application was step one.”


Community pushback in Hamtramck

It’s been a little more hectic in neighboring Hamtramck, where two recreational dispensaries have recently opened amongst some community outcry. Because the city never enacted an ordinance opting out of the recreational cannabis laws, the dispensaries Pleasantrees and Quality Roots were able to open up shop.


It was a calculated risk, says Pleasantrees founder and CEO Randy Buchman, but a legal one. Now Buchman wants to demonstrate that marijuana dispensaries are assets to a community, and not detrimental.


“We like to do business where people want us. So we really want to prove to the naysayers that we are a positive addition to this community,” he says.


The Michigan-based Pleasantrees is opening three locations in Massachusetts, positioning the company as one of the first Michigan-based cannabis companies to open out-of-state operations.


It’s clear from speaking with Buchman that while many view cannabis in a lot of ways, be it medicinal, recreational, cultural, spiritual, or otherwise, there is most definitely a financial component, too.


“There’s the money side and the culture side and a lot of companies don’t walk that line; most either know one or the other,” Buchman says. “Where we’re successful is walking both lines, performing in a boardroom and with the products.”


Of course, getting to the boardroom in the first place remains a considerable obstacle for many.


‘Our chance to transform the industry’


That’s something that Tate hopes to change. The purpose of the Legacy Detroit program is to let Detroiters in first. There is a social equity component to all of this. People of color historically have been disproportionately targeted by marijuana enforcement and prohibition; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and 60% in state prisons are black or Latino. And with the legalization of marijuana, some advocates have raised concerns about making sure the industry is inclusive.


“When you have individuals making a really good living on a plant while others are spending time in prison, this is our chance to transform the industry to make it more fair,” Tate says.


“We still want outsiders to do business here. They are welcome. But there is a huge desire to make sure that Detroiters have an opportunity, too.”


One of Lucky Pistil's dishes. These are dishes you might find at some of the top restaurants in Detroit, if it wasn’t for the featured ingredient: THC.Enid Parham is someone who shares that desire. She is a big believer in the healing properties of cannabis. It’s one of the reasons why she started Lucky Pistil, a cannabis catering company.


Her clients hire her for their private parties, where Parham will work with them on everything from multi-course gourmet meals to buffet-style dinners. Each menu is developed specifically for the event. Examples can be found on her Instagram page, like roasted sweet potatoes topped with sweet vanilla goat’s milk cream, granola-candied plum, pistachio, and mint. These are dishes you might find at some of the top restaurants in Detroit, if it wasn’t for the featured ingredient: THC.


“There’s no set menu so I walk clients through each step. It’s a custom menu,” Parham says. “Is it a fancy dinner or a pajama party? I cater to what the guests want.”


Parham exists in a sort of cannabis-related business purgatory. Adult-use laws at the state level don’t allow for her to open a cannabis-themed restaurant or café so she is, for now, limited to serving her food at private parties, which is legal as long as she details how many milligrams of THC are in each dish.


That hasn’t stopped Parham from enrolling in the Legacy Detroiter program; she’s in the process of completing the certification. But until the state allows a license for opening a cannabis-infused restaurant or café, Parnham won’t be able to open the business that she wants.


Until then, Parnham is committing herself to activism, working on the neighborhood level, and helping others obtain their own adult-use licenses. She’s working on getting into the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) to work on changing cannabis laws statewide. Lucky Pistil is booking parties. And she’s working on her blog Bonnie’s Kitchen, named after the grandmother who taught her how to cook, to teach others how to cook with cannabis, too. She’s even working on a cannabis cookbook.


“I really want to change people’s conceptions of cannabis and to bring in a healthy concept,” Parham says. “I want to destigmatize a lot of things people feel about cannabis because it’s just a plant. And it’s a healing plant.”


It’s also a plant of opportunity. City officials like Councilman Tate just want to make sure that Detroiters get their own shot at it.


“With the Legacy Detroit program, we want to make sure that being a Detroiter is a benefit in itself,” Tate says.