Not long ago, the Watson Township Board indicated a serious and well-attended meeting was sorely needed to gain public opinion about moving forward in crafting a local ordinance permitting medial marijuana dispensaries.
The board got its wish Thursday evening when more than 60 people made it standing room only for a discussion about the issue. Opinions for and against allowing medical marijuana growing, processing and transporting facilities were heard.
Providing the impetus for the large audience were John Caras and Scott Hershberger of Symponic Farms, who propose to construct such a facility on a 12-acre parcel on 15th Street, zoned agricultural. Facilities such as the one they seek to have approved can be allowed under a law passed more than a year ago by the State Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder. The law essentially leaves the issue of dispensaries up to local government units.
Caras and Hershberger sent out invitations to the meeting to a large number of residents, but four members of the Township Board said they had received calls about it, but didn’t know what to say because they didn’t know about the invitations.
Treasurer Sue Jones told Caras she didn’t appreciate being blind-sided and Clerk Kelli Morris said it was awkward fielding calls without knowing about the possibility of a large contingent showing up. Caras said he sent notice to Supervisor Kevin Travis.
Travis said Caras was exercising his First Amendment rights in sending notice to him and then asked Jones if she she had “any other snarky comments.”
The Watson Township Board, after fielding a number of inquiries about marijuana dispensaries, last summer finally agreed to explore the possibility of drafting an ordinance. Doing nothing would mean such facilities would therefore not be allowed.
The board directed the Planning Commission last fall to begin work on examining other sample ordinances in Michigan communities and to take steps on drafting an ordinance for Watson.
Former Township Supervisor and Trustee Rod Zeinstra said he had grave concerns about the board directing the Planning Commission to do such work.
“The important question is, is it good for Watson Township?” he queried, then added about the Symponic Farms site, “That location, to me, does not fit.”
Caras and Hershberger said the law permits facilities to exist only on parcels zoned agricultural or industrial, and more than 90 percent of Watson is zoned agricultural.
John Andrysiak, former township sexton, said, “We’re an agricultural community. When we judge someone for raising corn, wheat or buckwheat, I don’t see how that’s right if I don’t own that property.”
The meeting was kicked off by a presentation by Allegan County Prosecutor Roberts Kengis, who voiced his opposition to permitting any medical marijuana facility in the county.
“Allegan County communities should not allow for federal law to be violated,” he said, noting that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier that day announced that he was overturning the Obama Administration’s policy of not prosecuting cases in which marijuana users and providers were following state laws.
Kengis also said he considers marijuana to be a gateway drug to meth, heroin and cocaine.
“The negative aspects of medical marijuana far outweigh the positives,” he said, noting there have been many criminal reports involving the sale of marijuana to unauthorized people and thefts of the substance from growers and providers.
Caras respectfully disagreed. saying marijuana grows naturally and has been around since 500 B.C. An Iraq War veteran, he said he now is a licensed caregiver and sees cannabis as not a gateway drug, but an exit drug from the ravages of heroin and dangerous pain killers.
Hershberger, also a military veteran, chimed in, “It’s been legal statewide since 2008 (by a vote of 63% of the people in a referendum). We grow under very controlled conditions and testing.”
He added that he and Caras are planning a barn-like facility to grow up to 1500 plants that will be monitored constantly by cameras and the product will be securely locked away inside. Both stressed they provide a product that medically helps people such as veterans battling post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Travis noted that growing, transporting and processing facilities will pay an annual fee of $5,000 per year in order to have their license renewed.
There were questions about property values and odor from the plants, but Caras and Hershberger said their operation would eliminate the odor problem and their septic system would safely dispose of waste.
Tim Cornish said he believes the entire development undermines the federal government’s authority and blamed marijuana for crimes and breaking up families.
“I would liken this to sending my daughter on a date with a man I don’t know,” he remarked.
Ike Warner said may local companies have adopted zero tolerance policies on drug tests for employees, “So if you want your children to get a job, you’d better steer them clear of marijuana.”
A couple of people from out of town were brought in to comment on marijuana and ease residents’ fears. Doris Gibbons said she opposed the state-wide referendum legalizing medical marijuana in 2008, but said, “I was against it until I needed it.”
Dr. Richard Piaza insisted the greatest stumbling block for marijuana over many years has been that people leading the opposition to it are motivated by money, particularly the alcohol, pharmaceutical and drug underworld industries. He said a 12-year-old Texas girl is suing Sessions because cannabis stopped her many seizures, but she had to move to Colorado with her parents to legally obtain CBD.
Sue Zeinstra, however, contended, “I can’t deny the proof in the pudding… If this was (handled by) Pfizer or Perrigo I would feel much better about it. Can’t we step back and make sure this works for Watson Township?”
Travis said the board has gotten mixed signals from public opinion. He acknowledged a majority of those polled informally were opposed, but 57% of Watson Township voters in 2008 approved the state-wide referendum, which made Watson a target for providers and caregivers to ask for permission to establish facilities after the new law passed.
Rod Zeinstra, reiterating his discomfort with the Township Board directing the Planning Commission to draft an ordinance, added, “There is no resource to enforce it.”
Trustee Chuck Andrysiak replied, “We never told the Planning Commission that if they come up with an ordinance we would pass it.”
The Planning Commission is expected to begin working on a local ordinance in March.