Fate of recreational marijuana in Constantine to be decided

May 4 referendum to decide whether ordinance can be struck down

CONSTANTINE — A showdown at the ballot box over the fate of recreational marijuana in the Village of Constantine is expected to take place Tuesday, May 4.

The referendum vote on a recreational marijuana shop ordinance is the only item on the ballot for village residents only, which will determine whether or not the ordinance, allowing recreational marijuana to be sold in the village, can be struck down or upheld.

The referendum asks if an amendment to the ordinance, approved by the Constantine Village Council in 2020, can be made such that recreational marijuana sales are prohibited in the village.

A “yes” vote on the referendum will mean the ordinance as it’s currently written will be effectively nullified 10 days after the vote, with only medical marijuana allowed to be sold in the village by licensed businesses. A “no” vote would uphold the ordinance as is and keep recreational marijuana sales going in the village.

The vote is currently scheduled to take place despite a litigation effort to delay and potentially cancel the referendum. A lawsuit filed by Constantine Products LLC, which operates as The Dude Abides in Constantine, is currently challenging the legality of the referendum effort and asking St. Joseph County Circuit Court to issue a preliminary injunction to delay the vote until the matter can be resolved. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday, May 3, a day before the election.

For licensed marijuana businesses in the area, a “yes” vote on the referendum could mean the loss of a significant portion of their business and a loss of tax revenue to the village. Constantine Wellness Center co-owner David Helman said he was “mortified” when he first heard about the referendum.

“The village council spent a year working on an ordinance to put it in place, these people are voted to handle the situations of the village the way the people voted them in to do it,” Helman said. “It just meant people don't have faith in their village council.”

Helman added that recreational marijuana is key to his shop’s business plan. He said when recreational marijuana was made legal in the state in 2018, the “better majority” of medical marijuana cardholders opted to not renew their cards, leaving the medical side of their business with fewer customers to draw from.

“We’re unable to make a living as a medical facility because we just simply don’t have enough people that have cards and are shopping,” Helman said. “The majority of them decided to let their cards lapse and buy recreational because it’s available everywhere they go. If our town doesn’t allow [recreational], it simply means we can’t compete with the rest of the industry, and therefore we won’t survive here. I can’t cover my payroll, I can’t cover the cost of doing business on the medical, so we will close down.”

Dominic Iemma, chief operating officer of Fawn River Cultivation Company, an upcoming marijuana facility in the village, said a lot of the jobs he planned on creating would not happen.

“The jobs and the tax revenue, basically that was the first thing I thought of that I’m worried about,” Iemma said. “Jobs are very important here, and most people here unfortunately drive to Elkhart to work. We’re here trying to provide 75, 100-plus jobs, and they would be rejected.”

As for tax revenue, Iemma said if residents vote “yes,” the village would lose out on tax revenue given out by the state from sales of recreational marijuana. Helman said the amount the village could lose out on is significant.

“With medical sales, the town gets absolutely zero tax revenue. With recreational sales, the town is cut in on 10 percent of the tax revenue,” Helman said. “Just this last month, all the cities that opted in got their checks for $28,000 for the year, and as the years go on, this number’s going to grow exponentially, and they could expect it to go to $100,000 next year.”

On the other side of the argument, Mark Brown, a local attorney and part of the group behind the petition effort, Citizens Committee to Repeal the Recreational Marijuana Ordinance, said while he didn’t have a problem with medical marijuana being allowed in the state, he is not a fan of having either medical or recreational marijuana sales.

“I just don’t think it belongs in a town like this,” Brown said. “If this is our economic development plan, I guess that’s too bad.”

Those in favor of the referendum say they weren’t happy they weren’t given a say when the ordinance was passed last year.

“We didn’t really have a vote the first time. It was a 4-3 decision, but I don’t know why they voted as they did,” Brown said. “I think this is our chance to vote on it and our chance to make this town what it’s been instead of what I think it’s going to become.”

One of the major arguments the group has for voting “yes” is because of what they call a lack of infrastructure in terms of enforcement in the village.

“This is a fairly small town,” Brown said. “We don’t have a lot of administration, we don’t have a lot of police. I just don’t think this is something more we need to take on.”

Brown said he also worried about the number of licenses given out for such a small village. Currently, there are seven medical licenses and seven recreational licenses that have been granted by the village.

“Those are spread between growing, distribution and sale,” Brown said. “That seems to be a lot of licenses for a small village.”

As for the argument about tax revenue, resident Becky Shank said the revenues that could come in may not be as much as people think.

“At the time, we didn’t have the feedback from California and Colorado that they’ve been able to publish in the last two years about how this so-called financial wonder that was supposed to happen has almost bankrupted them, and the illegal stuff is still a huge factor in that,” Shank said.

Since recreational marijuana became legal in California, over $1 billion in tax revenue has been collected by the state from marijuana alone, according. However, that number is short of the $1 billion per year many officials projected when the measure passed in 2016. According to a March 2020 Orange County Register article, many in the industry have been wary of stagnating growth and other factors, including the black market and bans of retail shops in many cities and counties in the state.

Those for the referendum say that even if there’s legal recreational marijuana, the black market for recreational marijuana would still be around.

“They’re going to get it anyway, which is what the dealers are saying,” Shank said.

However, Iemma said having recreational shops will actually combat sales on the black market.

“There’s still marijuana in Constantine that people are using on the black market, but if we have the recreational market here in Constantine and the village partakes in the tax revenue, the people that are using marijuana gets safe access to marijuana and not buying black market.”

Overall, Iemma and Helman hope the referendum is defeated, and that the village can reap the benefits of recreational marijuana.

“Essentially, this would be a dry village, and people will take their business elsewhere, either to Three Rivers, where they’re working on something, or White Pigeon; they’ll go somewhere, and it just won’t be Constantine,” Iemma said. “The citizens are probably the biggest victims of this.”

“This would bring more tax revenue to this town, bring more jobs to this town and eliminating some of the empty businesses,” Helman said. “If this thing passes, none of this will happen and Constantine will go back to being the ghost town it was for the last several years.”

However, resident Becky Lemon said she doesn’t want the village to invest heavily into recreational marijuana.

“We want to be the seed corn capital of the world, not the pot capital of the world,” Lemon said.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m-8 p.m. Tuesday, May 4 at the Constantine Township Library.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

Three Rivers Commercial-News

124 North Main Street
Box 130
Three Rivers, MI 49093

Telephone: 269-279-7488
Fax: 269-279-6007
General email: info@threeriversnews.com