Detroiters demand more equity — and answers ...

Detroiters demand more equity — and answers — from Michigan’s budding cannabis industry

Detroit resident Geraldine Hasan is pictured at a neighborhood meeting where she shared concerns about the cannabis industry and what she sees as lax regulations.
Detroiter Geraldine Hasan is pictured at a neighborhood meeting where she shared concerns about the cannabis industry and what she sees as lax regulations. Credit: Jess Jackson

By Jess Jackson, Detour Emerging Voices Fellow

As Michigan prepares for the emerging recreational cannabis industry and attempts to level the field for minority business owners, Detroit’s budding “cannapreneurs” are eager to take part — but still face mistrust from residents who’ve seen the corrosive effects of drug enforcement in communities of color. 

Those tensions emerged earlier this summer as residents of the Bagley neighborhood in Northwest Detroit gathered to hear updates on the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act (MRTMA) from State Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit) and State Rep. LaTanya Garrett (D-Detroit). 

The lawmakers told the Bagley Community Council meeting attendees that state regulators had been working with communities to design policies; in response, they heard frustrations about inconsistent regulation of medical marijuana facilities in the past and concerns that outsiders were using cannabis businesses to profit off local neighborhoods. 

“Why do you have to come over to my city?” asked Geraldine Hasan, a longtime Bagley resident and Community Council board member. “They won’t allow many of us (Black people) in the industry anyway. It’s not fair, things are not fair.”

Voters passed MRTMA last November, legalizing adult recreational use of cannabis, though hundreds of communities in the state have preemptively banned sales. Retail sales and brick and mortar shops like you’d find in Colorado or California won’t be allowed until 2020, most likely — state officials are still hammering out regulations — but money has already started flooding into the emerging market. Medical marijuana was first approved by voters in 2008, but formal licensing procedures are still relatively new. Last year, Detroit changed its zoning code to cap the number of medical marijuana provisioning centers at 75. 

Hasan recognizes the drug’s medical benefits but has no faith in the recreational industry. She is displeased by what she sees as unclear regulation and lax enforcement after hearing from police officers about the lack of clarity around ticketing drivers under the influence. She’s concerned about increasing unemployment for black Detroiters — employers are still allowed to drug test workers and applicants

She and others at the Bagley meeting also spoke about how pungent smoke infringes on public space, saying they want to be able to sit on their porches without smelling weed. 

State Sen. Marshall Bullock (D-Detroit) presents at the Bagley Community Council meeting in Detroit in June. Credit: Jess Jackson

With a history of prohibition, police targeting of black communities, biased propaganda and barriers to entry within the industry, Detroiters like Hasan are wary of the promised “Green Rush.” Black Michiganders have been far  more likely to be convicted for marijuana crimes, and there are questions about how much they’ll benefit from legalization.  African Americans hold only a small fraction of the state’s medical marijuana licenses here, and racial inequality has been the national norm in the cannabis industry

The state Marijuana Regulatory Agency is hopeful that it can mitigate at least some of the financial barriers that could prevent many Detroiters from participating in the licensed marijuana market. The Social Equity Program, announced in July, will reduce licensing fees for residents of any of the 19 cities, including Detroit, that they say have been disproportionately impacted by drug enforcement. Business owners with prior marijuana convictions get further reductions in fees.

Last month, more than 150 people attended the MRA’s first Social Equity Education and Outreach session in downtown Detroit, convening representatives from state agencies like the Bureau of Fire Services and Treasury to educate aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs on the program requirements and benefits, as well as how to comply with industry regulations.

The reality, however, is that many cannabis businesses, like other startups, fail. MRA Executive Director Andrew Brisbo has the risks for entrepreneurs in mind as he shares the agency’s goal: “at least 60% of social equity licensees stay licensed for 5 years or more.” MRA plans to offer educational outreach, networking opportunities, one-on-one workshops to help licensees stay compliant and job fairs to help licensees hire diverse workers.

Apart from those resources, Brisbo said it’s up to individual business owners to get buy-in from the communities where they plan to operate, though licensing requires them to plan for it. Applicants will have to submit social equity plans detailing their businesses’ strategy to encourage participation in the industry by marginalized groups.  

“[We’re] not going to dictate to communities,” Brisbo said. “We want to be a resource to community leaders and community members, but the community has to determine the best approach. We will tailor resources that meet community needs and relate to small businesses… but we are only one piece of this puzzle.”

Detroiter George Alvin Byers II sees an opportunity to apply his software development training in a new industry, currently designing a POS system for marijuana businesses. Courtesy Byers.

George Alvin Byers II, a native Detroiter and new homeowner in the Bagley neighborhood who heads the block club, is excited for the potential market.

The 27-year-old is a software developer and entrepreneur who has already started building a product to support marijuana businesses. It’s a point of sale system that integrates the statewide reporting and inventory system licensees are required to use — and it could position him to succeed in the industry.

With increased tax revenue generated by the industry, social equity plans required by every licensee, and efforts to expunge marijuana offenses from 235,000 Michiganders’ records, Byers believes that the potential for community impact is high, from jobs for residents to taxes fueling neighborhood improvement projects. 

“As long as policies are in favor of our residents, it can do a lot of uplifting… there are a lot of positives that could happen,” he said. 

Want to help your community navigate this nuanced cannabis puzzle and ensure equity is part of the new industry? Here are some ways to get involved: 

  • Join a MRA Social Equity Education & Outreach session to provide feedback on the resources and opportunities. 
  • Review the forthcoming social equity plans submitted by adult-use licensees when they are posted on the state’s site. Stay informed and help hold licensees accountable to the promises they will inevitably make to your community. 
  • Legalization creates additional pathways to clean the slate for Americans with non-violent marijuana convictions. Review proposed expungement legislation and tell your legislators your perspective on expungement. Volunteer at a City of Detroit Project Clean Slate expungement fair. 
  • Coordinate with policy makers, community activists and local marijuana businesses to host educational forums that increase awareness of the law, the community concerns, and cannabis education.  
Jess Jackson

Jess Jackson is a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Detour Detroit’s Emerging Voices program, designed to tell the story of Detroit’s present and future in the voice of its residents. She is a  board member of the Bagley Community Council and works on communication design for cannabis-focused businesses. She recently returned to her native Detroit and purchased a home with her wife in Bagley. As an educator, an advocate and a community curator, Jess sees the fellowship as an opportunity to tell stories that underscore the importance of ensuring inclusion and equity in Detroit. 

Detour’s Emerging Voices fellowship program was funded in January 2019 by the Detroit Journalism Engagement Fund, a partnership between the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan, the Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.