As a majority of townships and villages in Barry County have done, Maple Grove Township board voted unanimously to opt out of allowing recreational marijuana businesses at an Oct. 2 public hearing.
The sentiment expressed during the public comment – by about 25 residents – was the opposite of comment during the township's public hearing last month, in which attendees were almost universally in favor of allowing recreational marijuana businesses.
Township Supervisor Jeff Butler said the opinions expressed Oct. 2 were more in line with the November 2018 election, in which Maple Grove voted, 346 to 251, against Proposal 1 to allow recreational marijuana. He also noted the township's “sphere of influence,” both Castleton Township and the Village of Nashville, have opted out of recreational marijuana businesses.
The number of people at the meeting was an all-time high for Maple Grove Township going as far back as board members could remember.
There were around 15 people at the pubic hearing last month. At that meeting, people spoke out in support of local resident Jared Justice.
Justice, a small acre organic vegetable and marijuana caregiver farmer, had asked the board to consider allowing medical marijuana operations in the township earlier this year. After the board unanimously voted to take no action on the issue, Justice came back to the board a few months later to ask them to consider recreational marijuana farms.
As a medical caregiver, Justice said he is allowed 72 plants, for which he is unlicensed, unregulated and untaxed. He has been growing medical marijuana as a caregiver for more than two years. Justice told the board last month that, if he became a commercial recreational grower, he would need to complete a four-inch thick application, go through a background check, and would be licensed, regulated and taxed. He also would be allowed only 100 plants his first two years.
“I want to do this legally, legitly, the right way,” Justice said.
Although he attended the Oct. 2 meeting, Justice did not speak during public comment until after the council voted for the ordinance to opt out. No one spoke in favor of opting in for recreational marijuana during public comment.
Multiple residents spoke on their views of marijuana. Although the township board did require the audience members to say their names before speaking, few did so.
Many spoke of marijuana as a “gateway drug,” and connected it to problems with harder drugs like crack in Chicago or even opioids in China.
Castleton Maple Grove Nashville Assistant Fire Chief and lifetime Maple Grove resident Wayne Gould spoke first. He related his experiences with his shipmates in the Navy, or people he had worked with in manufacturing, who started using marijuana and went on to harder substances which upended their lives.
“We live here in Maple Grove Township and we think, 'Well, it's going to be grown here, it's going to go someplace else, and it's not going to affect us,' and that's not true, it's going to affect all of us,” Gould said. “Eventually it's going to hit us in hospital premiums, insurance premiums and crime.”
Gould also said the regulations aren't in place yet, and marijuana has been genetically modified to be stronger than it was in the 1970's.
Archie Jennings said he agreed with Gould's statements, and pointed to neighbors or employees who ruined their lives with drugs.
“Right is right and wrong is wrong,” Jennings said. “It's the long and the short of it.”
“58 percent of residents voted no,” another resident said. “That's a majority.”
Barry County Commissioner Heather Wing also attended the meeting and spoke during public comment.
“The state hasn't really set real good standards yet,” Wing said. “It's kind of hard to make a decision if you don't know what they're going to throw at you.”
Trustee Doug Westendorp moved to opt out of recreational marijuana. The motion was seconded by Larry Hook before it was swiftly passed by a unanimous roll call vote.
After the vote, Butler asked the public their sentiments on medical marijuana in the township.
“Sentiments would be the same,” Gould said.
“I believe growing marijuana for medical is a cover for recreational use,” Westendorp said.
Justice then addressed some of the points raised during public comment.
“I don't think it's fair to say cannabis is a gateway drug,” Justice said. “I've used cannabis for 10 years. I've started and ran three businesses. I work - excuse my language - I work my ass off every day. I work almost 100 hours a week. I'm not lazy, I don't do other drugs, I use it responsibly.
“It's an individual thing, you can't justify throwing everybody in the same pool because you know this person or that person who's abused this or that. If they're going to abuse a substance, no matter what it is, it's a personal thing, it's not the alcohol that caused a person to be an alcoholic, it's the person that went down that path.”
Justice also said marijuana has not been genetically modified, but crossbred over decades to increase the THC, but, again, it's each person's choice of how much to take.
“If you go to a bar you're going to drink a 16-ounce beer, you're not going to drink a 16-ounce whiskey.” Justice said. “You're just using less of the same product to achieve the same affect.”
Justice said people in Maple Grove are going to smoke marijuana regardless of whether his farm remains a caregiver operation or is commercially licensed as recreational.
“But we don't have to like it,” Gould said.
After the meeting, Justice expressed his frustration with the township's decision.
“It's pretty ridiculous when people get to tell me what I can and can't do with my land,” Justice said to the Maple Valley News
He said much of the public comment during the meeting was conjecture and opinion based on decades of propaganda and misinformation about cannabis.
Justice said he has two options: He can move to a different township that allows the growing of recreational marijuana, or he can have multiple caregivers on his farm.
Each caregiver is only allowed to have a set number of marijuana plants. But, if a farm has multiple caregivers, it can have more plants – comparable to what Justice might have with a commercial recreational license. Unlike a commercial grow operation, Justice would continue to be unlicensed, unregulated and untaxed. He said it's not what he wanted to do, but it is the only option available that will allow him to develop his cannabis farm into a more profitable business in Maple Grove Township.
Westendorp said he was not surprised by the public sentiment or the board's decision.
“I expected the board to use common sense,” Westendorp said. “If we have to revisit it, the decision will be the same.”