Kent officials ask packed crowd for patience on marijuana zoning rules

Photo by Elsa Olofsson

Kent residents pressured city council Wednesday, April 17, to lift its moratorium on adult-use cannabis operators, testing labs and individuals required by the state to be licensed, but city leaders are still pressing the pause button.

Ohio voters approved Issue 2, which legalized recreational marijuana, in November, but the Ohio Department of Commerce Division of Cannabis Control has yet to finalize rules and regulations regarding ownership, allowable locations, dispensary security and operations.

Even when it does, Kent Community Development Director Bridget Susel cautioned that it will take months for the city to craft a zoning code that will comply with state regulations.

City Manager Dave Ruller assured a packed audience that the city supports adult-use marijuana and Bliss Ohio, Kent’s medical marijuana dispensary, in particular. But zoning codes, he said, protect all residents.

“We share a common enemy,” he said. “I wish the state would hurry up. If the state had issued those guidelines, we would be rolling. As soon as the state issues those guidelines, we’re rolling, next day, I promise you,” he said, specifying that he meant rolling on “the promises that zoning requires.”

As things now stand, even though council did unanimously agree to Council Member Chris Hook’s motion to study lifting the moratorium, the city is stuck.

“What we’re wrestling with — I’m waiting for the gummies myself — is how do we have these very specific legal requirements on zoning and then we have this new thing that entered the arena, and it ain’t fitting naturally in any of those places,” Ruller said.

For the city to move forward, the state must be the first domino to fall, he said. Then, and only then, will Kent city leaders know how to proceed.

Kent’s commitment to waiting for the state has Kent resident Maggie Sessions concerned.

“I worry that the rezoning could prove as much of a challenge as redistricting the wards has been, and that this will push out the temporary moratorium to a date past the point when the state starts letting dispensaries sell recreationally in Ohio, thus letting the licenses go to cities around us,” she said.

Speaking directly to The Portager, Bliss Ohio co-owners Pamela and Dwayne Siekman said their business will be forced to close its doors if surrounding communities allow their dispensaries to sell recreational marijuana before Kent does. (The county’s only other medical marijuana dispensary is in Ravenna.)

“We can’t compete with only selling medical when the surrounding dispensaries are selling to adults,” she said, adding that all businesses need a level playing field.

Daniel Zinsmaster, Bliss Ohio’s attorney, penned a letter to council members urging them to “carve out” existing medical marijuana dispensaries like Bliss Ohio from the moratorium so they are able to expand their operations and leverage the preferencing in license allotment the state granted them following the passage of Issue 2.

“Indeed, because residents from Kent will soon be able to travel to dually licensed medical and adult-use dispensaries in nearby municipalities, this moratorium only serves to harm local businesses like Next-Level,” he wrote. (Next-Level is Bliss Ohio’s legal moniker.)

Acknowledging that the state rules have not been finalized, Zinsmaster stated that further revision is not expected and the ultimate directives “regarding the locations of cannabis facilities mirror existing, codified law, and will not be changed for adult use sales.”

Since state guidelines for recreational and medical marijuana dispensaries will be the same, the city’s concerns as far as zoning goes are moot, he wrote. With that in mind, council members should realize that the very rules they claim they are waiting for, at least as far as zoning for such facilities, “already exist and are in effect,” Zinsmaster stated.

Echoing Zinsmaster’s words, the Siekmans noted that Bliss Ohio has operated without incident since it opened, and that, over time, Kent stands to gain millions of dollars in excise taxes on the sale of adult-use sales. Their general manager, James Russell II, works with the state Department of Commerce to ensure Bliss Ohio is compliant with all state regulations.

Russell called for open dialogue to assist whatever processes are needed to open Kent to adult-use sales that he said will be the company’s backbone. Anticipating sales that will result in the state realizing $200 million to $400 million annually in excise tax revenue, he said Kent’s portion of that money will benefit Kent schools, roads, parks, community parks and outreach programs.

Lifting the moratorium will only help, not harm Kent, he said.

Kent resident Madeline Franz joined multiple community members urging council to change its collective mind. Franz said she appreciates the need for careful zoning, but called Kent’s lag in allowing adult use marijuana sales “irresponsible.” Unless the moratorium is lifted, she said local taxpayer dollars will flow to surrounding communities.

Noting that medical conditions such as depression and anxiety are not approved for medical marijuana, Kent State University student Hannah Toth told council members it is the only thing that helps some people. As the law now stands, she said those people are forced to find their drugs on the street, putting them at risk.

Calling the moratorium “an idea borne out of fear,” Pebblebrook Lane resident Kayla Henry said adult-use dispensaries can easily follow the model medical marijuana dispensaries already use. She too advocated keeping local money in Kent rather than seeing it flow elsewhere.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.