Alpena residents react to marijuana moving in
ALPENA — The arrival of marijuana dispensaries in Northeast Michigan has changed the community — whether for better or worse depends on who you ask.
In 2018, Michigan voters legalized recreational marijuana sales, use, and possession, by a margin of 56% to 44%, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Alpena County residents voted against legalization 53% to 47%, though 53% of Alpena city residents voted for legalization.
Since then, numerous marijuana shops and other businesses have opened in Northeast Michigan, including two in Alpena — Neighborhood Provisions and Meds Cafe — with more expected in the future.
In the neighborhoods surrounding the new shops, some residents shrug off the new neighbors, while others worry about everything from increased reckless driving to lower property values. Police say it’s too soon to say whether readily available marijuana has impacted public safety, though some worry it could have contributed to a rise in the use of harder drugs. And those who work in schools say it’s definitely made it easier for young people to get their hands on the drug, which remains illegal for those younger than 21 to use or possess.
Marijuana has and will continue to pump money into the coffers of local governments, and some say it could boost the local economy as people visit the region to shop at marijuana stores and visit other stores and restaurants while they’re here.
But many wonder whether marijuana is a good fit for Northeast Michigan.
“Who is it good for?” asked Bob Bruning, who lives near Meds Cafe near downtown Alpena. “Most of us are against it. We grew up in a timeframe where they always told us how bad it was, it was a gateway drug … I just, I don’t get it.”
Residents in the neighborhoods near the Alpena provisioning centers have mixed thoughts on the addition of the businesses. Some have seen no change, while others strongly oppose the shops, saying they’ve seen an increase in traffic and reckless driving in the area.
“I don’t want it around here,” said Paul Derry, who lives near Neighborhood Provisions.
He said marijuana is addictive, and “it affects their brains.”
“There’s lots of traffic now,” Derry said. “They turn the corner, and they gun it.”
He has lived in that Alpena neighborhood for 52 years.
“When we first moved here, this was nice and peaceful as it could be,” Derry said. “I don’t like it being up there.”
Nearby resident Mary Talaska said she has seen no change since the provisioning centers opened up. She lives about equidistant from Neighborhood Provisions on Washington Avenue and Meds Cafe on Campbell Street.
“I think it’s fine,” Talaska said. “It’s a little bit progressive. Every larger metropolitan area has been doing it already for a while.”
She has not noticed any negative impact in the neighborhood since the shops opened up.
“Nothing at all has changed,” she added.
Talaska has not been inside either shop, because she doesn’t use marijuana.
“It’s not something that I do,” she said. “But I know a lot of people who do.”
She added that, as long as they conduct business professionally, she doesn’t mind them being open near her home.
“I can see no negative,” she said, adding that, prior to the shops opening, “I don’t know that I was for it, but I wasn’t against it.”
Bruning lives in a residential neighborhood about a block from Meds Cafe in Alpena. He said the presence of the marijuana shop is negative, especially for children.
“I’m totally against it, as is, I would say, 90 to 95 percent of the neighborhood,” Bruning said. “I can’t speak for everybody, but we had over 400 signatures that were trying to keep it from coming in here. Because this is a family-friendly area, as you can tell, and we’ve got a lot of kids here.”
He said the proximity to Ella White Elementary School makes it an inappropriate placement of the shop.
“We’ve got a school 1,500 feet from us,” Bruning said, “Which is where my daughter goes.”
Bruning said it’s not appropriate for children to see such businesses, which can only sell to those 21 and older.
“This is supposed to be a DARE community,” Bruning said, referring to Drug Abuse Resistance Education programs in local schools. “It doesn’t say much … when you’re allowing pot shops in town.”
His preference would have been locating the dispensaries on the outskirts of town, where children and other residents don’t walk by every day. He’s also worried about home values going down over time because of their proximity to the dispensaries.
Bruning has lived in his home for nearly 20 years, and he said the neighborhood is full of families and the elderly.
He added that, if people drive to the dispensaries, that adds the possible factor of them driving home under the influence of marijuana, which affects the safety of the community.
While legalization decreased the number of arrests for marijuana possession, it may have driven up other types of drug crime, said Sgt. David Whitford, of the Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office.
He attributes at least some of a local increase in methamphetamine possession to former marijuana users who lost interest in the drug once it became legal.
“Kids would sneak around, ‘Ooh, I’ve got some weed,'” Whitford said. “Now, there’s not that excitement.”
Rogers Township, which received $56,453 from a state tax on recreational marijuana sales, offered some of that money to the county to train a dog to detect illegal drugs.
The dog will not learn to identify marijuana, but is training to detect heroin, cocaine, meth, and ecstasy — the drugs more likely to cause problems in the community as people turn away from marijuana, Whitford said.
Other local police say it’s too early to gauge whether legalization and ready access to the drug will prove hazardous to public safety.
“We’re going to wait and see,” said Alpena Police Chief Joel Jett, “and see how this goes.”
Northeast Michigan arrests for driving under the influence of drugs increased from 17 in 2017 to 24 in 2020. Police made 16 drugged driving arrests last year, according to data provided by the Michigan State Police.
Police do not differentiate between drug types related to a drugged driving arrest, so arrest numbers do not necessarily correlate to incidents of driving under the influence of marijuana.
Statewide, the rate of fatal crashes declined 11% over the past 13 years. At the same time, among fatal crashes followed by a test for the presence of THC, the psychoactive chemical in marijuana, the proportion of tests positive for cannabinoids more than tripled, from about 7% in 2004 to more than 23% in 2017, before legalization, according to a May 2020 study prepared by the University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center.
The overall impact of cannabis shops could prove positive if communities use marijuana tax revenue to support police or safety-related initiatives or to combat the factors that can contribute to crime, such as poverty and addiction, said Erik Smith, Alpena County sheriff.
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TEEN DRUG USE
Teens “definitely” use more marijuana now than before the legalization of the drug, said Matt Bisson, school resource officer at Rogers City High School.
Cigarette use, common among teens in the past, has gone by the wayside, but easy access to marijuana has upped its use by high schoolers, impacting school attendance and effort in the classroom, Bisson said.
A $40 fine and civil infraction citation for a first and second offense for a minor don’t provide much of a deterrent for teens considering using, Bisson said.
Rural kids sometimes say they turn to drugs because small-town living provides so little else to occupy their time.
“That’s an excuse,” Bisson said. “There’s always something else you can do.”
Young people today show a greater savviness about marijuana and ways to ingest it, said Chet Spencer, a prevention specialist with Up North Prevention and former longtime Alpena High School school liaison officer with the Alpena Police Department.
An arm of Catholic Human Services, Up North Prevention collaborates with Alpena Public Schools to present drug prevention programs to students at Alpena High School and Thunder Bay Junior High School.
In his work, students routinely demonstrate they understand new ways to ingest marijuana to get higher levels of THC in their system, Spencer said.
He’s also seen evidence of students making online purchases of new marijuana edibles such as THC-laced Cheetos.
The more teens know about the newer forms of the drug, with its concentrated THC levels, the more they are susceptible to impairment, addiction, and physical harm, Spencer said.
In Michigan, young adults aged 18 to 25 use marijuana the most, but are least likely to think the drug is dangerous, according to the Injury Prevention Center study.
Marijuana can adversely impact the still-growing teenage brain, contributing to increased risk of mental health issues, difficulty thinking and problem-solving, and potential for addiction, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Young people need to hear repeated messaging about the dangers of marijuana from their community, Spencer said.
Those who do not use it safely, endangering others by reckless actions such as driving under the influence, need to be arrested and held accountable, said Spencer.
Teens who enter the juvenile court system in Alpena haven’t shown an increase in marijuana use, but they do have more access to the drug from parents who obtained it legally, said Janelle Mott, juvenile officer for the 26th Circuit Court Family Division.
Even if the drug is locked up, minors still get access to it, without — or, sometimes, with — parental permission, Mott said.
She has observed an increase in the use of harder drugs — methamphetamine, heroin, or cocaine — among youth in the court system, but can’t directly attribute that to marijuana legalization.
Teens who do use marijuana frequently ask, “What is the problem? It is legal now,” Mott said.
She spends a lot of time explaining to young people that, “even if it is legal, it is not legal for you.”