Local impact of marijuana legalization, walking with a beer on Western Ave & more: LARA Director Orlene Hawks meets with Muskegon leaders

State Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Director Orlene Hawks at the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Thursday morning. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Days after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order overhauling the way the state handles marijuana regulation, local business and health leaders urged state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) Director Orlene Hawks to keep a close eye on the rollout of legalized marijuana for adult recreational use in Michigan.

“There are a lot of concerns; up until this point in the local community, there hasn’t been a lot of regulation [of marijuana],” Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen told Hawks, who met with area business, healthcare, education, and government leaders at the Chamber’s downtown Muskegon headquarters Thursday morning.

“Anybody has been getting that medical marijuana card,” Larsen continued. “The fear going forward is, if that’s how that was managed, how will LARA make sure this industry is regulated more like alcohol?”

The governor’s executive order should address community concerns over marijuana regulation, said Hawks, who has served as the director of LARA for the past two months. The organization responsible for Michigan’s regulatory environment, LARA oversees everything from the state’s marijuana and liquor industries to business filings, workplace safety, construction codes, workers compensation, professional licensing, and more.

Whitmer’s decision on March 1 to establish a Marijuana Regulatory Agency within LARA and abolish the state board that approves or denies applications for medical marijuana business licenses comes after voters approved legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use in November. Ten years ago, Michigan voted to legalize medical marijuana.

Provided legislators do not veto the order, the new Marijuana Regulatory Agency will begin handling licenses for both the medical and recreational markets as of April 30. The governor emphasized the new agency is being created at a time when the volunteer state board has struggled to approve or deny licenses in a timely manner.

“This executive order will eliminate inefficiencies that have made it difficult to meet the needs of Michigan’s medical marijuana patients,” Whitmer said in a March 1 press release. “All elements of this agency have been designed to serve and better protect Michigan residents, and I’m eager to have a unified effort across state departments to make sure this process runs effectively and efficiently.”  

In response to concerns about regulating marijuana, Hawks emphasized that LARA officials are working hard to learn from the successes and failures of other states that have legalized it.

“Our staff has immersed themselves to get to know the industry,” Hawks said. “They’ve gone to Colorado, to Washington, and they’ve learned what to do and what not to do.”

Laura Fitzpatrick, the community health improvement manager for the Muskegon Community Health Project, emphasized the importance of paying attention to the impact of marijuana on local businesses.

“As we push forward drug legalization issues, how is our workforce impacted?” Fitzpatrick said to Hawks. “High doesn’t get you hired.”

Larsen said there needs to be communication regarding marijuana usage and regulations, particularly among young adults.

“Young people will be shocked when they lose their jobs” because of marijuana usage, Larsen said at the meeting with Hawks. “They’ll say, ‘But I have a medical marijuana card.’”

Those attending the gathering with the LARA director addressed a variety of other issues as well, including the possibility of Muskegonites being able to drink in public.

“Something that was discussed at the end of the last legislative session was something called social districts, and that’s basically being able to, here in Muskegon, walk with a beer down Western Avenue,” Downtown Muskegon Now Executive Director Dave Alexander told Hawks.

“Our city commission has been wanting to explore that, or at least have the option to explore that, and the downtown agencies have supportive of that,” he continued. “What we’re asking is to have that option.”

Hawks said she’ll “make sure [Liquor Control Commission] Chairman Andrew Deloney is aware of that, and I’ll track that.”

Larsen also urged Hawks to ensure greater communication regarding construction codes.

“One of the things that comes up more than anything else is the construction codes; I get more complaints about that than about anything, about how to manage construction projects and the regulatory system,” Larsen said.

“The local contractors and local people who issue the permits, and the cities and townships, they interpret that code book differently,” Larsen continued. “It causes a lot of delays in construction and fines in construction. I thought there’s got to be something at the state level that can be addressed.”

In response, Hawks said she will relay Larsen’s critique to the Bureau of Construction Codes (BCC).

“If there are different interpretations of the codes, that’s not good for business,” Hawks said. “It sounds like we need to do more outreach and communication…It sounds like we have work to do with the BCC.”

Hawks concluded the meeting by addressing LARA’s role in combating the opioid epidemic in Michigan. Overdose deaths from opioids reached a record high in Michigan in 2017, according to a report released in 2018 by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. According to the report, 1,941 of Michigan’s 2,729 overdose deaths in 2017 were opioid-related. According to state statistics, 11.4 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in 2015, equaling about 115 opioid prescriptions per 100 people.

“This is felt not just locally; this is a national epidemic,” Hawks said.

About 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses in the country, according to the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

MAPS, Michigan’s prescription monitoring program that’s overseen by LARA, is helping to combat the state’s opioid crisis, Hawks said. MAPS is used to track controlled substances and is used by prescribers and dispensers to assess a patient’s risk of addiction or overprescribing by a doctor.

“It’s a way for people to check the prescribing habits of prescribers,” Hawks said. “We can get those bad prescribers, the overprescribing. We see physician hopping and pharmacy hopping. It’s a great tool for drug aversion.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitterand Instagram.

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