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Alpena council says yes to medical marijuana

ALPENA — After considering recommendations from the Alpena Planning Commission and the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, the Alpena Municipal Council voted 4-1 on Monday to instruct staff to begin drafting the ordinances and zoning rules needed to allow medical marijuana businesses in the city.

Both the Planning Commission and DDA recommended that the city allow up to a pair of each of the six different types of medical marijuana businesses, and the council followed suit. Councilwoman Susan Nielsen was the lone vote against.

Despite the vote to move forward, it is expected to take months before the proper local regulations and zoning rules are complete and the needed public hearing held.

Mayor Matt Waligora, who has for some time been in favor of allowing medical marijuana cardholders a place in town to purchase medical marijuana, said he is ready to move ahead with a good plan.

“I don’t have an issue with marijuana facilities in the city and I’ve stated that before and there hasn’t been anything that has convinced me otherwise,” Waligora said. “I think the medical marijuana industry is slightly different than that of recreational (marijuna), and I have been convinced that it is useful.”

Medical marijuana has been legal in Michigan since voters OK’d it in 2008. Voters in November legalized recreational marijuana, but the Alpena Municipal Council has voted to prohibit sales of recreational marijuana within the city.

Councilman Mike Nowak indicated Monday he was against allowing businesses centered around the drug, which is still considered illegal by the federal government. But, after talking to many constituents, he had a change of heart and voted for it.

Councilwoman Cindy Johnson, who believed she could be the swing vote if the decision was close, said that, after some thought, she decided it was the right thing to do.

“For me, it was never an issue of should it be allowed or not, but whether it was a fit in the city,” she said. “It is not my place to tell people what to do and I don’t tell people if they can drink or not, it is none of my business. We got comment from the Planning Commission and DDA, and it shows it does fit in the city.”

Like Waligora, Councilwoman Amber Hess has been in favor of allowing medical marijuana businesses to operate in Alpena. She said that, if they weren’t allowed, people who depend on the drug would be forced to leave the area and spend their money elsewhere. That wasn’t right, she said, because it is for medical needs.

“I feel the people who need it need to have access to it in our community and not have to travel outside of it to get the medicine they need,” Hess said.

Nielsen was the only member of council opposed to having a new ordinance drafted. She said she has talked to medical professionals and they say there are alternatives to pot for illnesses, although she didn’t give any examples of what those were. Nielsen said having the drug easily available would set a bad example for kids.

“I am convinced that the damage it causes our youth and to the people who may misuse it or don’t, it is not our place to introduce that,” Nielsen said. “My mind and in my conscience will not let me say yes to this.”

Michigan’s new law promises communities that allow recreational marijuana businesses a portion of revenue from an excise tax on the drug. Alpena will not get a portion of that revenue because it prohibited such businesses.

The new marijuana law also repealed an excise tax on medical marijuana, so Monday’s decision does not mean a major new income stream for the city beyond the property taxes any new businesses would pay.

Sales of both recreational and medical marijuana are taxed at the same 6% rate as the sale of most any other product. Most of the state’s sales tax revenue goes to schools.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.