At an April 2 meeting that lasted until midnight, the Ann Arbor city council handled several agenda items that could affect continued patient access to medical marijuana in Ann Arbor. The meeting also featured extensive public commentary on the topic of medical marijuana. In advance of publishing the full meeting report, The Chronicle offers this analysis of some of the medical marijuana-related issues that were discussed.
Most notably, the meeting featured remarks from city attorney Stephen Postema indicating that he believes medical marijuana dispensaries should not be in business now because they lack licenses: “… [dispensaries] can’t operate right now, they’re not allowed to operate at all – without a license.”
That contradicts the city’s ordinance, which allows dispensaries to operate while their license applications are still pending. (The city is still in the process of issuing its first licenses for dispensaries.) From the ordinance: “The medical marijuana dispensary may continue to operate pending final action on the application unless the Building Official determines that it must be closed for safety reasons.” When The Chronicle sent Postema an emailed query questioning the accuracy of his statement, he responded by insisting his statement was accurate. However, Postema declined to provide any foundation for his feeling that dispensaries lacking a license – even those with applications pending – are not allowed to operate by dint of having no license.
If dispensaries are assumed to be operating in violation of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, then they would not be allowed to operate – whether they had a license or not. However, at the April 2 meeting Postema did not identify a basis for such an assumption. He stopped short of describing an interpretation of a recent Michigan court of appeals ruling (the McQueen case) as banning all dispensaries, but said the ruling presented “severe difficulties” for dispensaries.
The council’s deliberations on Monday night can be understood in the context of a struggle between the city attorney’s office on the one hand, and some members of council and the medical marijuana licensing board. The struggle relates to who has the decision-making authority for awarding licenses, and when those licensing awards should be decided. From a formal, procedural point of view, it’s not an open question: The licensing board makes recommendations to the city council, which has the ultimate decision-making authority. The board has already recommended that licenses be awarded to 10 different dispensaries.
However, from a practical point of view, the council will act only under the advice of the city attorney’s office. Since the licensing and zoning ordinances were enacted by the city council last year, Postema has proceeded in a way that reserves a role for city staff in the licensing process that has an uncertain basis in the actual ordinances approved by the council. Revisions to those ordinances, meant in part to address some of those uncertainties, were part of the council’s April 2 agenda.
Here’s a summary of the outcome on medical marijuana issues at the April 2 meeting: (1) the council unanimously postponed consideration of licensing ordinance revisions until June 18 – the council’s second meeting that month; (2) on a 9-1 vote, the council approved giving direction to the city planning commission to review the zoning ordinance; and (3) on a 6-4 vote, the council tabled a resolution directing the city attorney to delay enforcement activities against dispensaries. A tabled resolution will demise if it’s not brought back off the table in six months.
Deliberations suggested in sum that the current arrangement in Ann Arbor, under which patients are still able to get medical marijuana from dispensaries, will persist at least until the city council votes on licenses. But the timing of that vote appears fairly uncertain, given the mixed signals currently being sent by the city attorney.
Provided in this article is analysis of some of the local issues related to medical marijuana licensing and zoning. The analysis culminates by showing how the interpretation of a single requirement in the city’s zoning ordinance – that dispensaries adhere to the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act – makes a significant difference in who makes the practical decision on whether dispensaries receive a license and can legally operate, and where the burden of proof lies for MMMA conformance.
The city council passed two pieces of legislation on medical marijuana at its June 20, 2011 meeting – a licensing ordinance and a zoning ordinance. The final approval of the legislation came after more than a year of legislative work, which began in closed sessions by the council held with its city attorney. The council’s first public discussion and action, however, did not come until the council’s Aug. 5, 2010 meeting, when the council imposed a moratorium on the “initiation or expansion” of medical marijuana business uses within the city. So the moratorium, which was extended several times from its initial 120-day period, did not apply to existing businesses.
Local Licensing: Pending Applications
Existing medical marijuana businesses with ongoing operations before Aug. 5, 2010 were recognized in Ann Arbor’s local licensing ordinance in at least two ways. [.pdf of Ann Arbor medical marijuana licensing ordinance] First, they were able to submit applications for a license before businesses that were not in operation before the moratorium. Second, the licensing ordinance explicitly provides for a dispensary’s continued operation while its application is pending [Emphasis added]:
7:504. Application requirements for new annual license or renewal of existing license; license requirements for new license and for renewed license.
(1) Application Submission.
A medical marijuana dispensary that commenced operation prior to passage of the moratorium by City Council on August 5, 2010, shall have until 60 days after the effective date of this chapter to submit an application for a new annual license. If the medical marijuana dispensary commenced operation prior to passage of the moratorium in a zoning district where its operation is not permitted under the zoning ordinance, the application shall be for a location in a zoning district where operation of a medical marijuana dispensary is permitted under the zoning ordinance. No other applications will be accepted by the City until 75 days after the effective date of this chapter. The medical marijuana dispensary may continue to operate pending final action on the application unless the Building Official determines that it must be closed for safety reasons. Within 60 days after an application is denied, the medical marijuana dispensary shall discontinue all operation.
Postema’s characterization of the situation at the April 2, 2012 council meeting is at odds with the content of the ordinance. His remarks came in the context of an argument he was making that the council should be thinking about voting on the license awards for the 10 dispensaries that had been recommended for licenses. Final action on their applications is still pending, because the city council has not yet voted on them. From Postema’s remarks to council [inaccurate statement emphasized with italics]:
… frankly I don’t know why, under the ordinance, the business licenses aren’t before the council. Ordinarily they’d come there. So again, this is all sort of backwards in one sense, because what they’re trying to do is get a license. They can’t operate right now, they’re not allowed to operate at all – without a license. And that is what they should be wanting to be in front of you, so you can rule on it. So if they do comply with state law, they can get a license. So asking them for basic information is part of what needs to be there. And that’s nothing surprising. The fact that the licensing board somehow took offense to this, that’s because they’re operating in a different realm in some ways than what I’m being asked to do. So there’s nothing surprising there.
An emailed query from The Chronicle to Postema pointing out the contradiction between the actual ordinance language and Postema’s inaccurate statement at the meeting was met with this reply: “There is no inaccuracy in the statement as a careful review of the entire zoning and licensing ordinances demonstrate.”
Unanswered by Postema was a follow-up invitation to explain how he reasoned that a dispensary with a pending license application is illegal (by dint of lacking a license), in light of the specific language of the ordinance.
Beyond the part of Postema’s statement that is contradicted by the licensing ordinance, his remarks raise some interesting issues, most notably whether a detailed demonstration of a dispensary’s compliance with the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA) could be a pre-requisite to receiving a license under Ann Arbor’s local ordinance.
Local Licensing: Role of State Law (MMMA)
The city’s licensing ordinance includes two provisions that allow the city to revoke a license, after has been granted, if a state law is violated:
7:508. License revocation.
(4) Marijuana is dispensed on the business premises in violation of this chapter or any other applicable state or local law, rule or regulation;
(5) The medical marijuana dispensary is operated or is operating in violation of the specifications of the license application, any conditions of approval by the City or any other applicable state or local law, rule or regulation.
The licensing ordinance also includes violations of state law under its prohibited acts:
7:507. Prohibited acts.
(b) Produce, distribute or possess more marijuana than allowed by any applicable state or local law.
(c) Produce, distribute or possess marijuana in violation of this chapter or any other applicable state or local law.
And the licensing ordinance requires that the conduct of business at a dispensary conform to a specific quantity requirement of the MMMA:
7:506. Conduct of business at a medical marijuana dispensary.
(3) No more marijuana than is permitted under the MMMA shall be kept on the premises of a medical marijuana dispensary.
However, the licensing ordinance does not establish as a pre-condition for licensing a demonstration that a dispensary has a business model that conforms with the MMMA.
The licensing ordinance does, however, establish a requirement that a license application include a zoning compliance permit:
7:504. Application requirements for new annual license or renewal of existing license; license requirements for new license and for renewed license.
(2) Application requirement for new licensee
(h) A zoning compliance permit that shows the proposed medical marijuana dispensary is located in a zoning district that would permit its operation.
Based just on Chapter 95, which contains the medical marijuana licensing code, it appears that a “zoning compliance permit” is simply a certification that a dispensary is in the correct zoning district. Otherwise put, as described in Chapter 95, a zoning compliance permit is simply a formal mechanism for ensuring that an applicant for a medical marijuana license intends to operate in a district that has been explicitly zoned for medical marijuana dispensaries.
By way of background, in Ann Arbor, medical marijuana dispensaries can be located only in those districts zoned as D (downtown), C (commercial), or M (industrial), or in PUD (planned unit development) districts where a retail use is permitted in the supplemental regulations.
Local Licensing: Chapter 95 Zoning Compliance Permit
But a zoning compliance permit is a notion that’s not unique to Chapter 95. The fact that there are other uses for a “zoning compliance permit” within the city bureaucracy – besides certifying that a business is in a district zoned for medical marijuana dispensaries – is made explicit in Chapter 95. In describing how the fee for a zoning compliance permit is assessed, Chapter 95 states [emphasis added]:
Fees for zoning compliance permits and certificates of occupancy shall be separate from the application fee, but shall be the same amount and shall be paid pursuant to the same procedures as applied to applications for zoning compliance permits and certificates of occupancy for other uses.
So Chapter 95 acknowledges that a zoning compliance permit as described in Chapter 95 serves a different purpose from zoning compliance permits mentioned elsewhere in the code. The purpose of a Chapter 95 zoning compliance permit, then, is none other than to establish that the dispensary is located in the correct zone. Nothing in Chapter 95 connects the granting of a zoning compliance permit to any type of compliance with the MMMA.
Local Zoning: Chapter 55 Zoning Compliance Permit
In evaluating license applications, however, the city attorney’s office and planning staff have applied an additional condition on granting zoning compliance permits – beyond a requirement that a dispensary is correctly zoned. That additional condition is for a dispensary to demonstrate compliance with the MMMA, which the city attorney’s office ascribes to the Chapter 55 zoning.
Local Zoning: Chapter 55 ZCP Conditions
The basis that staff is using for this additional requirement is not in Chapter 95, the medical marijuana licensing ordinance, but rather in Chapter 55, the general city ordinance on zoning. Chapter 55 includes the zoning regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries. [.pdf of medical marijuana zoning ordinance]
The Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit for medical marijuana dispensaries is described as follows:
(4) Medical Marijuana Dispensary and Medical Marijuana Cultivation Facility Regulations
(h) A zoning compliance permit shall be required consistent with Section 5:92
What is Section 5:92 of Chapter 55? It includes the following:
5:92. Zoning compliance permit required.
(1) It shall be unlawful to begin the excavation for the construction, the moving, alteration, or repair, except ordinary repairs as defined in Chapter 98 of the Ann Arbor City Code, of any building or other structure, including an accessory structure, costing more than $100.00 or exceeding 100 square feet in area until the Planning and Development Services Manager has issued for such work a Zoning Compliance Permit which includes a certification of his determination that plans, specifications, and the intended use for such structure do, in all respects, conform to the provisions of this Chapter.
Hypothetically, a dispensary that did not need to undertake any construction or alteration of a premises costing more than $100 or exceeding 100 square feet could meet the (4)(h) requirement without having a zoning compliance permit. That is, even though it did not have a Chapter 55 permit, it would still be consistent with 5:92. Such a hypothetical dispensary could then reasonably expect to be issued a Chapter 95 zoning compliance permit, if it simply demonstrates it is located in the correct zone.
So what is the basis of the city attorney’s contention that it’s his obligation to verify compliance with the MMMA? Consider a dispensary that undertakes enough work on the premises to trigger the 5:92 requirement that it obtain a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit. In that case, the planning manager would need to determine that the “intended use” – as a medical marijuana dispensary – conforms to all the provisions of Chapter 55.
And one provision of Chapter 55 is this:
(4) Medical Marijuana Dispensary and Medical Marijuana Cultivation Facility Regulations
(k) Medical marijuana dispensaries and medical marijuana cultivation facilities shall be operated in compliance with the MMMA.
Local Zoning: State Law in Chapter 55 ZCP Conditions
Some licensing board members had this understanding of the city’s ordinance: If a dispensary owner states that the dispensary will or does conform with the MMMA, then the city planning manager could determine that the intended use as a medical marijuana facility conforms with (4)(k). Some board members felt that such an assurance would meet the conditions of a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit.
It’s also possible to analyze the licensing requirements in a way that would result in the granting of a license, based on a Chapter 95 zoning compliance permit, but that could be followed by an immediate revocation of the license if the dispensary tried to operate, for failure to have a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit.
The city attorney’s office sees the issue differently from the licensing board. The city attorney has interpreted the (4)(k) requirement to mean that a dispensary must demonstrate MMMA compliance to the city attorney’s office before it will be issued a zoning compliance permit. So the zoning compliance permits of the dispensaries that have been recommended for licenses are still pending. To evaluate compliance with the MMMA, the city attorney’s office required that dispensaries submit with their license applications a clear statement of exactly how their business models would conform with the MMMA.
For example, Cannabis Counsel, the attorney for MedMarx at Arborside, included a statement explaining its MMMA conformance in the wake of Michigan v. McQueen (Compassionate Apothecary). An Aug. 23, 2011 court of appeals ruling on the case has been interpreted by many authorities to mean that no medical marijuana dispensaries are legal. [.pdf of letter from Cannabis Counsel regarding Arborside's business model] The McQueen case has been accepted for review by the Michigan Supreme Court, which means that it’s not yet settled case law. And the broadest interpretation of the McQueen case – that it bans all dispensaries – is itself controversial.
The Cannabis Counsel letter lays out why the court of appeals in the McQueen case found that the Compassionate Apothecary business model was not in compliance with the MMMA: The problem was that Compassionate Apothecary did nothing to “assist” patients in administering or using marijuana, beyond exchanging marijuana for money. In contrast to Compassionate Apothecary, argues Cannabis Counsel, Arborside does assist patients in the manner described by the court – by assisting the patient “in preparing the marihuana to be consumed in any of the various ways that marihuana is commonly consumed.” Those ways include providing patients with “cleaned prepared de-stemmed cannabis including pre-rolled joints, medibles which have been inspected, tested, cleaned, grinded and rolled, or cooked in combination with foodstuff.”
The Ann Arbor dispensaries met the city’s request to submit with their applications an explanation of their compliance with the MMMA. And on Jan. 31, 2012, the city’s licensing board voted to recommend licenses to 10 dispensaries. Yet after that, when dispensary owners felt like they’d completed the application process with the final step to be a vote by the city council, the city attorney’s office sent out letters demanding additional data.
Among the questions posed to all dispensaries in the letters are the following: “Does any person or entity deliver marijuana to [Dispensary Name]? If so, does [Dispensary Name] ever pay, donate, or in any way give money to the person or entity who delivers the marijuana or to anyone else? If so, to whom is the money paid, donated, or given and how much?” [.pdf of set of letters]
Dispensaries have balked at the additional data request – the information is sensitive and the collection of such data by the city was explicitly removed by the city council during the legislative process that resulted in approval of the licensing and zoning ordinances. But the city is currently not granting Chapter 55 zoning compliance permits to license applicants – on the grounds that compliance with the MMAA cannot yet be verified.
Significance of (4)(k)
The interpretation of the seemingly innocuous requirement in (4)(k) of the zoning ordinance – that a dispensary operate in compliance with the MMMA – has a significant impact on two things: (1) Who makes the practical decision on dispensary license awards? and (2) Who bears the burden of proof with respect to the MMMA?
Significance of (4)(k): Applicability of the MMMA?
Absent the (4)(k) requirement, the city would need some other basis to deny a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit to a dispensary. And that is one reason that the licensing board has recommended that (4)(k) be struck from the ordinance. At the council’s April 2 meeting, the idea of striking the (4)(k) was met with professed puzzlement by some councilmembers as well as the city attorney. Their rhetorical position trades on the idea that striking the provision would somehow mean that dispensaries do not have to operate in accordance with the MMMA. In fact, of course, removing the requirement would have no effect on the applicability of the MMMA. It’s not possible to render a state law inapplicable by failing to mention it in a local ordinance.
Significance of (4)(k): Decision Point
But it’s not entirely true – as city attorney Stephen Postema claimed at the April 2 meeting – that “… the [proposed] changes in the zoning or the other ordinance aren’t going to change the issue of whether they are compliant with state law.”
Under Postema’s understanding of the (4)(k) requirement, there’s a decision point before a city council vote on license awards. That decision point is effectively made by the city attorney – about granting a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit. The decision has a material effect on a dispensary’s ability to operate. If a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit is denied, or still pending, then it’s not clear why a councilmember would vote yes on the award of such a license.
From a practical point of view, operating without a zoning compliance permit would be a violation of the zoning ordinance (even if the zoning compliance permit were still pending), and that would be grounds for revocation of the license, even if one were awarded. So even if a license were awarded by the council, it would not give the dispensary the ability to operate in the absence of a Chapter 55 zoning compliance permit. On that scenario, a dispensary would have a meaningless license and could not operate until the city attorney decided to issue a zoning compliance permit.
Postema’s office has still not made decisions on the issuance of Chapter 55 zoning compliance permits for the dispensaries that have been recommended for licenses by the licensing board. The permits are still pending. So it’s not clear why Postema would say at the council’s April 2 meeting: “… frankly I don’t know why, under the ordinance, the business licenses aren’t before the council. Ordinarily they’d come there.” It’s especially not clear why Postema would say that, when he has told at least one city councilmember that his office would not be prepared for licenses to come before the council until June.
Postema’s feeling – that a zoning compliance permit can be issued only if he is satisfied that the dispensary is MMMA compliant – has a consequence for the practical decision point on awarding licenses. In order for the council to take a vote on awarding licenses with any practical consequence, a dispensary will need to have a zoning compliance permit. And if a dispensary has a zoning compliance permit, that means the city attorney has been satisfied that a dispensary is MMMA compliant.
So for any meaningful council vote on a dispensary license award, Postema will have publicly indicated that the dispensary is MMMA compliant – through granting a zoning compliance permit. If Postema were to present the opposite view confidentially to the city council in advising against the award of a license, that would be inconsistent with his public decision to grant a zoning compliance permit. So from a practical point of view, Postema’s interpretation of the criteria for granting a zoning compliance permit – the (4)(k) provision – moves the decision-making step on licenses from the city council to his office.
In contrast, on the licensing board’s interpretation of the (4)(k) requirement, dispensaries would simply need to do what they’ve already done – provide an assurance that their intent is to comply with the MMMA and a rationale for why their business model is MMMA compliant. On that interpretation, a dispensary would qualify for a zoning compliance permit if it’s located in the correct zone.
At that point, a license award could be voted up or down by the city council, with the city attorney free to provide the council whatever legal advice he felt was appropriate. For example, Postema’s advice could run along the following lines: Even while the dispensary owner has given an assurance of intent to operate in compliance with the MMMA, thus earning a zoning compliance permit, the opinion of the city attorney is that this dispensary will not or does not achieve actual compliance with the MMMA, based on a stated set of reasons.
Significance of (4)(k): Burden of Proof
The licensing board’s interpretation of (4)(k) would also have a practical effect on the issue of state law compliance – with respect to who has the burden of proof. The city attorney’s office contends that under the current zoning and licensing legislation, a dispensary has the burden of proof to demonstrate to the city attorney that it’s in compliance with the MMMA before it can be issued a zoning compliance permit. In any case, the zoning compliance permit is required under the zoning ordinance in order for a dispensary to operate – whether it has a license or not.
On the licensing board’s interpretation of (4)(k) – or if (4)(k) were deleted, as the board recommends – dispensaries would be issued zoning compliance permits. That issuance would be based on their appropriately-zoned location and their intention and rationale for compliance with the MMMA. The city council could then weigh the city attorney’s advice in making its decision on a license award. And it’s possible that the city attorney’s advice would be that a particular dispensary already did not conform to the MMMA, or did not have a business model that would conform.
But suppose the council made a decision to award a license, against the city attorney’s advice. Then, if Postema believed the dispensary were operating in violation of the MMMA, the burden of proof would be on him to demonstrate that’s the case, in the context of starting a license revocation process.
The interpretation of the (4)(k) requirement thus has a significant impact on: (1) who makes the practical decision on license awards and the ability of dispensaries to operate; and (2) who has the burden of proof for determining MMMA compliance. On the city attorney’s interpretation, a practical decision on license awards can be made by his office, and the burden of proof for compliance rests with the dispensaries. On the licensing board’s interpretation, the practical decision about a license award is made by the city council, and the burden of proof on MMMA compliance rests with the city attorney.
So by suggesting that (4)(k) be struck from the zoning ordinance, the licensing board is not suggesting that dispensaries be allowed to operate in violation of the MMMA. Rather, the licensing board is suggesting that the question of interpreting (4)(k) – and its impact on the granting of zoning compliance permits and license awards – be removed from the discussion. With no (4)(k) left to interpret, the practical decisions on license awards would be made by the city council, and the burden of proof for violation of the MMMA would rest with the city attorney.
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