VANDENHEEDE: Let’s talk about pot

Published 8:29 am Monday, February 10, 2020

Dan Vandenheede is a Niles city council member, he can be contacted by email, or by phone, (269) 635-8458.

In my last column, I focused on how quality of life has been my guiding principle when it comes to making decisions on the city council. Others view attracting business to town as the main function of our council. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive, and more often than not they complement each other. In this column, I want to apply these ideas to what has become the biggest issue to face Niles in a long time — the legalization of marijuana and the city’s response.

For those who follow city government it may appear that I am an anti-pot crusader; I have been one of two (Georgia Boggs being the other) council members who have consistently voted against our marijuana related ordinances and sale of property to marijuana businesses. Frankly, I am surprised to find myself in this position as I have always considered myself to be one of the more socially liberal members of the council. 

When it became clear the city was going to have to decide rather to allow marijuana businesses in town, I expected I would be the odd man out … by saying “yes” — a cautious and take-it-slow yes, but still a yes. Instead, our council fully embraced the new opportunity and decided to go “all In” on marijuana, to the extent that I feel we may adversely affect the quality of life for our residents in the long run.

A little background is in order here. 

When the State of Michigan changed its laws to allow commercial medical marijuana businesses in 2016 each municipality had to decide rather to “opt in,” that is to allow these businesses. When the state’s residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018 each municipality had to decide to “opt out,” to NOT allow businesses. Furthermore, each municipality that decided to allow either type of business had to decide on questions such as how many and where they could locate. For my example, I will focus on recreational marijuana, although Niles does also allow medical businesses.

For the record, of the 533 municipal governments in Michigan, only 35 have decided to allow any recreational marijuana businesses. Of the 39 municipalities in Berrien County, only Niles and Buchanan have currently decided to allow them. Of the 35 municipalities, statewide that allow any recreational businesses, 13 have no limit on the number of growing and processing licenses they will allow.

Niles is one of them. Niles has also voted to allow, with micro-businesses, six dispensaries and three consumption centers and to allow them in both industrial and commercial zoned areas. I was supportive of the original direction the city seemed to be taking — to have a limited number of licenses with a strict vetting process and to only allow the businesses in the industrial park and a dispensary on the South 11th Street corridor, but when it became clear we were headed to being one of the most permissive cities in Michigan on marijuana I decided I had to take a stand, albeit an unsuccessful one.

To be clear, I do not have any moral qualms with marijuana. I view it as a personal choice and I, like the majority in Michigan, voted to legalize it for recreational use. I have used it occasionally and know lots of people who do so regularly.  I know people who it seems to help for things like chronic pain and anxiety and others who just enjoy the “high.” I also know people for whom it has become a problem, who have become dependent (although marijuana is not physically addicting, it can become psychologically addicting). I have watched a family member go through the classic “gateway drug” phenomena, eventually becoming a heroin addict.  In this way marijuana is not that different from alcohol — it can be fine if used responsibly and in moderation, while it can become a problem if not.

Back to the city’s response to marijuana. While I understand the enthusiasm on the council to attract new businesses to town, and hopefully some new tax dollars, I feel we have gone too far too fast. I had hoped for, and supported, a more measured approach — with limits on the number of licenses and where they could operate — just as we do with other adult oriented businesses. With an unlimited number of businesses allowed,

I fear Niles will come to have a reputation as a “pot” city. I fear that after the initial “boom” in business we will be left with more vacant buildings as the market sorts out the winners and losers. I fear couples looking for a town to raise families would not want to choose Niles.

In short, I fear for the quality of life of our town. I hope I am wrong about all of this, after all there is so much more to Niles, and no one wants their town to go to pot.