by Rick Thompson/originally appeared in The Rolling Paper/August 2021
Bill Schuette was right, to a certain extent: we did try to put a pot shop on every street corner we could, during the 2010-2014 days. Schuette said in 2008 that, if the Medical Marihuana Act was passed, there would be a pot shop on every corner. He was a double-dick for saying that: he was a sitting Appeals Court Judge at the time so it was highly inappropriate for him to champion a political issue, and the law absolutely did not mention dispensaries or retail sale of cannabis at all, so he lied.
Open “pot shops” we did, because sick people need medicine and in the early years the supply method provided by the law was just getting started. In subsequent years there were at one time 500 unlicensed retail shops spread all across Michigan- but especially in Detroit. It’s true that not every street corner had a street dispo on it. Some places said NO, loudly, and our community got the message. After court rulings in 2014 gave municipalities what they believed to be carte blanche to disallow rebel cannabis retail shops, some acted upon it. Most didn’t. When the 2016 MiLegalize ballot initiative gained enough signatures to get on the ballot, the legislature was motivated to pass the MMFLA, the program licensing cannabis retailers and other businesses. That’s when most outlaw shops were shut down- when a legal alternative became available.
MiLegalize 2016 was defeated by the courts, and the pirate cannabis retailers were mostly defeated by the MMFLA. Some of those cannabis retailers from the pirate days managed to pass muster and qualify for the legal cannabis market. Most did not. But here’s a factual way to look at the exact same timeline, from a social acceptance perspective.
Bill Schuette told people the worst possible things were going to happen- school children would become hooked, property values would fall, people getting killed on the roadways from stoned drivers- to stop people from voting for the 2008 medical marijuana ballot proposal. He used all the same anti-drug talking points which law enforcement folks had been saying for decades. The loudest and most recognizable cop voices in the state said, this is bad. Socially, the people were past that. They had evolved a different belief about cannabis. Voters approved the ballot proposal by 63%.
Once identification cards were issued in April of 2009, it became clear that the program was lacking. The Department of Community Health was swamped with applications and had, at one point, a six-month backlog of applications waiting for cards to be issued. Caregivers were hesitant to start growing without state approval, and many growers were first-timers. Advice was hard to come by. Patients struggled to be successful at growing, and caregivers struggled too.
Bold individuals began retail storefronts to supply those struggling patients. Many people predicted that the pirate shops would all be shut down, and some of them were. But cannabis consumers weren’t the only ones to see that sick people had no access to medication. Those citizens who voted for the medical law recognized there was an unsatisfied need for access, and so retail shops were tolerated in some communities- a few even licensed the “pot shops”. In 2009 there were just a few places openly selling medical marijuna to qualified patients- Big Daddy’s, 3rd Coast, etc.
In 2010 the dispo explosion happened. In Detroit, Lansing, Flint, Ann Arbor- cities where people were already favorably disposed toward the medical marijuana program- dispensaries began popping up. Each city weighed their options: shut things down or let it flow? For many cities the choice was, let it flow. Why the flow? Well, you know. Our stories of sick people made a difference. Our soldiers bared their souls. Mothers talked openly about their sick children. Success stories from other states recruited new supporters. Social acceptance rose so much, it became unpopular for municipal leaders to shut down cannabis retailers. The people said, sick people need their medicine.
Court rulings all along the way disfavored the cannabis movement. By 2014 there was ample court precedent for cities to cite when denying or closing a cannabis retailer, but final court decisions absolutely drove home the fact that transfer between a caregiver and a patient to whom they are not connected through the registry database was not legal. Cities had the ultimate tool to use to shutter those pirate retailers- but still most did not. Social acceptance of their presence made it politically dangerous to do, but there was also a recognition among municipal leaders of the need for organized distribution to make the medical program successful. Law enforcement cried out for cities to slam the door shut on “illegal cannabis businesses” but most refused. It was the people who made it so.
In 2016 the legislature passed the MMFLA program and soon after, cities began eliminating the pirate centers in favor of licensed retail establishments. Social acceptance of cannabis use had evolved to include storefront operations even before the law allowed storefront operations. The people continued to evolve their acceptance of cannabis, as evidenced by the 2018 approval of the legalization ballot proposal by 56%. It is clear the people just do not believe the transfer of cannabis from person to person is a big deal any more. Whether folks are doing legal, slightly disallowed, or balls-out criminal acts, people just don’t want to see anyone put in jail for a plant.
Social acceptance of cannabis has guided the growth of the Michigan medical marijuana industry, and the legalization industry, too. The compassion of the people made allowances when the letter of the law created disadvantage. Now, in 2021, forces want us to step backward into prohibition by restricting caregivers, rekindling the drug war against innocent people, using the same talking points as Bill Schuette did, in 2008. Do not vote for these people; speak out against this attitude whenever you encounter it; and spread the word that America is a green nation now, a cannabis nation. We shall not walk backwards into that dark night.