By Jenna Anderson
While marijuana dispensaries in Michigan opened their doors for adult recreational sales on December 1, a lack of community participation and licensing restrictions keeps the industry in the hands of the black market. There were only four storefronts selling on the first day, three in Ann Arbor and one in Morenci.
“$221,000 in sales split between four stores on a Sunday. That’s a nice little haul,” said Anqunette “Q” Sarfoh, former Fox 2 anchor and co-founder of BotaniQ, a medical marijuana dispensary in Corktown. Sarfoh entered the industry after using medical marijuana to treat multiple sclerosis.
Sarfoh, 48, was unable to participate in the “hoopla” of the first day because Detroit is currently opted-out of recreational sales. However, she said the city is just taking its time to draft an ordinance that’s right for the community. “I fully appreciate and support that,” she added. The City Council is expected to make their decision by January 31.
While Detroit will likely allow recreational sales, an overwhelming majority of communities in Michigan have opted-out. Sarfoh blames this on the stigma surrounding marijuana.
“We’re dealing with 70 years of propaganda,” she said. “People are hesitant to let go of their long–held beliefs no matter how untrue they are.”
Sarfoh invites these people to visit BotaniQ and see what the licensed marijuana industry is really like. “You still have a lot of people who feel that provisioning centers are drug dens,” she added. She looks forward to debunking these beliefs: one example is a group of “little old ladies” who comes to her store for arthritis cream infused with THC. “You can take THC and not get high,” she explained.
Studies have also shown that, in licensed markets, teenage usage goes down. “They can’t get it as easily,” Sarfoh said. “We check IDs.”
“Every community that decides to opt-out has given a huge boost to the black market,” Q added. With no stores available in their community, potential customers are more likely to turn to an illegal delivery service than travel to a dispensary elsewhere.
Advertising gives the black market another advantage. Since the provisioning centers are not allowed to formally advertise, they use WeedMaps, an app that shows all the potential marijuana listings nearby, legal or illegal.
“We advertise right alongside the hundreds of illegal delivery services,” Sarfoh said. “The variety is better and the price is better so the black market is thriving.”
And, while it’s a crime to sell without a license, she said it’s not a priority for police because marijuana is legal. “We don’t want anybody to be locked up,” she added. “But if I have to pay $60,000 to sell, shouldn’t these illegal delivery services do that as well?”
Another advantage for the black market is product grown by caregivers. In Michigan, every adult can possess up to 12 marijuana plants. A caregiver can grow 12 and another 12 each for up to five patients, giving them 72 plants.
“If you have a 72 plant grow, and you’re a really good grower, you can have a pound or two or three per plant,” Sarfoh said. Caregivers cannot sell this marijuana to legal dispensaries because they are not licensed. The extra plants go into the black market while the legal market buys from licensed processors at a premium.
Sarfoh argues that there needs to be more avenues for caregivers to sell their product. There is one business called Black Market in Kalamazoo that sells tested products from caregivers. Other than that, the real black market is their only choice. She predicts that more of these caregiver intake centers will open in Michigan.
Zoning is another stumbling block for prospective dispensary owners. Marijuana dispensaries can only operate in the “Green Zone” or marijuana real estate. Most of these buildings have already been purchased. With a real estate monopoly, the owners charge tenants incredibly overpriced rent. For example, BotaniQ’s rent jumped from $10,000 a month to $16,000 a month for no specific reason.
In her 2018 speech at Hash Bash, an annual marijuana event in Ann Arbor, Sarfoh encouraged the crowd to run for office to solve problems like zoning.
“If I owned a strip joint, I can run [for office]. But because I help people not throw up, I can’t run for office,” said Sarfoh, referring to how medical marijuana once treated her violent vomiting. With owners of dispensaries barred from holding public office, educating those who do write the rules is important.
Until these problems – and more – are solved, Michigan’s million–dollar marijuana market will be controlled by illegal activity. “It’s much more advantageous to be a black market person right now,” Sarfoh said. “Most of the provisioning centers are scraping by.”