Public hearing set for proposed Three Rivers marijuana consumption lounge amendment

City Commissioner Pat Dane (left) was the lone dissenting vote for the first reading of the proposed ordinance amendment saying, "I don’t think we need to be the capitol of St. Joe County when it comes to marijuana." (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

Three Rivers City Commissioners discussed a potential marijuana ordinance amendment at length Tuesday, which would allow for legal consumption in licensed facilities. The first reading was approved 5-1, and a public hearing is scheduled for September 19 at 6 p.m.

Owner of Daly Dope (113 Portage Ave.) Daly Broekema submitted an application for a Special Exception Use (SEU) permit for zoning business district B-3 to include marijuana consumption lounges. In her application Broekema cited “cannabis education classes” as her reason for the proposed ordinance change. 

“I want to host cannabis education classes where we can teach our community and visitors how to safely use cannabis. This is a rapidly evolving industry, and being able to provide a safe and legal environment to educate consumers would be pivotal for our community,” she wrote in her application. Broekema added that the consumption lounge would be located on the third floor of 113 Portage Ave., which is currently vacant.

When the floor was opened Tuesday evening for public comment, Village of Constantine resident Rebecca Shank spoke out against the proposed ordinance amendment. “For over 10 years, before I even moved into the Village, I was attending their village council meetings and was aware that there were numerous persons from as far away as Detroit, Royal Oak, Grand Rapids, and so forth that were promoting the marijuana businesses and how they wanted to really help our area,” Shank said.

“Unfortunately, from my perspective, it got allowed in too much for a town of 1,500 to 2,000 people. The parking lots are filled with Illinois license plates from beginning to end of the day, traffic is terrible, and when this last idea of a ‘lounge’ of getting together and having music and smoking came up it was discussed several times and, in the end, it was flatly voted down.”

Shank said the biggest concern the Village of Constantine had with the potential consumption lounge was “they get together and smoke this stuff, and then they go out and get in their car and drive.” Shank ended her statement by saying she hoped and prayed the City of Three Rivers would vote down the ordinance amendment.

City Commissioner Carolyn McNary thanked Shank for sharing her thoughts, and said she thought more members of the community would have attended Tuesday’s meeting to voice their opinions, as well. “I just thought more people would be concerned,” McNary said. “We’ve got to constantly be educated about marijuana and its uses and effects and things like this. We just have a really long road to go down with this marijuana process.”

With a question for Chief of Police Scott Boling, City Commissioner Chris Abel asked, “I know if someone goes to a bar and has a drink, goes out to their car, and they leave there’s a pretty good chance that they’re probably going to be under the legal limit if they just have one drink. As far as with marijuana, is there a legal limit of how much they can have in them that’s active or is it any at all?”

Boling said there is not, and that it is one of the problems law enforcement agencies have been facing. “It gets kind of complex, but what we’re looking for is poor driving, and then we are looking at the presence of the chemical ‘THC’ in the bloodstream.” According to Boling, the problem is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) metabolizes quickly into a different chemical that is legal to have in the bloodstream. “There’s not a preliminary breath test for marijuana consumption, so it’s challenging on law enforcement to pursue prosecution in a lot of cases. I’m not saying it’s not impossible, but you have a short timeframe to work on, and it can be challenging,” he said. 

When asked by Abel whether there had been any successful convictions for marijuana consumption since the recent law changes, Boling said, “I think that we’ve had very few here with THC in the bloodstream, and I think they were accident-related. Basically, the laws of enforcement have not caught up with making it legal.” Mayor Tom Lowry added, “The science isn’t there yet. There is no standard test that can lead to the level of impairment of disability that is universally agreed on. So, the percentage of THC does not correlate with levels of impairment. The science just isn’t there yet, and that’s one of the drawbacks.”

Commissioner Pat Dane voiced her opinion against the ordinance amendment saying, “My question is, why are we even talking about it? There are no laws to protect anybody and the police chief just said that. Why are we even discussing it to put out a first reading when it just shouldn’t happen?” Dane suggested the city wait until the laws “catch up” and said, “It just doesn’t make any sense that we would want people to smoke, and they’re not going to limit how much they can smoke, and then they get in their car and go home. I don’t think we need to be the capital of St. Joe County when it comes to marijuana,” she said. 

Lowry suggested the commission go forward with the first reading that evening in order to give the public an opportunity to come to a public hearing and voice their opinions. “The second thing is, if we adopt this (ordinance amendment) we should consider a sunset, like a one-year sunset where the staff re-evaluates, we get a report, and it’s not an automatic renewal unless we revote it. I’m willing to try it for a year and see what happens,” he said.

Watershed Voice reached out to Broekema for a statement regarding her application to amend the current ordinance and she said the following: “The reason I’m petitioning to amend the B-3 district’s marijuana ordinance is to give our community a safe and legal space for consumption. Cannabis consumption lounges encourage social connections, education, and safety. I plan to have an area designated for cannabis education classes, and a separate area for a social lounge that’s open during regular business hours. Adding such a unique business to our historic downtown would help revitalize and grow our economic ecosystem. We understand that there are safety concerns, but if the ordinance amendment is approved, we will be prepared to work with the city commission and local authorities to ensure public safety and education is of utmost importance.”

Only 10 states, including Michigan, have greenlit cannabis consumption lounges, with Michigan having two open and operating establishments: Kalkushka, a licensed consumption lounge in downtown Kalkaska, and Hot Box Social in Hazel Park which is open for private events. 

A public hearing will be held on September 19 at 6 p.m. during a regularly scheduled meeting at City Hall (333 W. Michigan Ave.). 

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.