Draft medical marijuana ordinance revised to allow more dispensaries

NILES — Could allowing more medical marijuana dispensaries in Niles make the city feel like “Pot City, USA” or increase business investment?

During a Monday night city council meeting, this question was at the center of a contentious first reading of a proposed Medical Marihuana Facilities Ordinance. After some debate, council members voted 5-2 to amend the ordinance proposal to allow for four medical marijuana provisioning centers, rather than only two.

Councilmembers Daniel VandenHeede and William Weimer opposed the motion. Councilmember Georgia Boggs, who has been an opponent to marijuana in the past, was absent for the meeting.

A final reading and approval of the ordinance will take place at the next council meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 14 at the Niles Fire Station Complex, 1345 E. Main St.

The draft ordinance was up for discussion because city officials have revised the original ordinance, created Nov. 13, 2017, to reflect updated laws.

Councilmember John DiCostanzo made a motion to bump the permitted provisioning centers from two to four.

“I’m not trying to create a city where we have the connotation as Pot City, but I want to have an environment where we can have businesses come and do business and be successful,” DiCostanzo said. “If we limit it to two now, all the other successful businesses are going to find another place to start up.”

Councilmember Daniel VandenHeede said it was the wrong move for city leaders to make.

“I would just like to go on the record saying I think this is a very bad idea,” VandenHeede said. “I think we as a council owe it to our constituents to see where this goes.”

In December 2017, city council members approved seven medical marijuana licenses to four businesses. With these businesses already in the pipeline and the potential to bring the future of recreational marijuana up for discussion, VandenHeede asked fellow council members to be cautious of creating a situation they could not reverse. He said four medical marijuana dispensaries for a city of roughly 11,000 residents were just too many.

“We are going down that road,” VandenHeede said. “I don’t want to be Pot City, USA or Pot City, Michigan. I think we have a few up here that think that’s our future. I don’t think that’s our future.”

DiCostanzo countered and said that the city should not put a cap on a business opportunity.

“I think in the end, the competition is going to whittle the number of businesses down to the ones that can run successfully and be profitable,” DiCostanzo said. “By limiting the number at the very beginning, we limit the number that can start up and have a chance to be successful.”

Newly elected councilmember Travis Timm agreed with DiCostanzo and said it was unlikely that all approved provisioning centers would be successful.

“It’s not easy to run a business,” Timm said. “If you cut it down to two, they could both fail.”

In May, city council members enacted a 180-day moratorium on medical marijuana applications. With the moratorium now lifted, Sanya Vitale, the community development director, said she is expecting more medical marijuana applications to pour in.

During council reports at the end of the meeting, several continued the discussion. 

VandenHeede said he felt council members had forgotten the constituents that they were representing.

“Do we want to compete with Buchanan to see who can get more marijuana shops in town?” he said. “That’s not a town that I think my constituents want to live in. I don’t think it’s a town people are going to want to come and buy a house in.”

Councilmember Charlie McAfee said she felt Monday’s vote was an opportunity to show they were listening to what constituents want.

“It appears that no matter how I feel or what I think about it, most people, they want marijuana in the city,” McAfee said. “If you’re the voice of the people and have agreed to be the voice of the people … then I don’t see any other way.”

There were several other amendments to the original ordinance. While most are minor, City Administrator Ric Huff said the proposal also calls for a new vetting process for prospective medical marijuana business owners. If the proposal is approved, medical marijuana businesses will now have to obtain state approval before applying to the city.

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