ELYRIA — A budding industry is eyeing Elyria as a home base to research, grow and sell medical marijuana, leading city officials to question if Elyria is ready to be a cannabis community.
The interest, Mayor Holly Brinda first announced at her annual State of the City address Tuesday, is in response to Ohio lawmakers making cannabis legal for medicinal purposes for those with myriad ailments and illnesses. However, reducing the legal restrictions was just the first step. Now, the state has to determine who should be the purveyors of the products and where they should be available.
That’s where Elyria comes into the conversation.
With its highway access, the city is a favored location for companies looking to snag the state’s coveted marijuana licenses. And, while companies don’t need the city’s permission to secure a license, the endorsement of city officials goes a long way in the state’s licensing application process. Understandably, that means many companies are coming to Brinda for a shot, she said.
Yet, Brinda said it’s not her decision to make, and such a venture should be vetted fully in a public setting.
“Whether you are a proponent or opponent of medical marijuana, it is coming to Lorain County. Licenses will be issued,” she said.
There are 28 states where the use of medical marijuana is legal, while more than a half-dozen also have opened up the drug for recreational use. The Ohio law that made medical marijuana legal puts limits on the amount, strength and type of cannabis products allowed. Smoking marijuana will not be allowed.
Brinda said one company looking to get a foothold in Elyria is Green Mile Enterprise, which has medical cannabis operations in other states under the name Shango Premium Cannabis. On Tuesday night, their representatives addressed City Council in the first public discussion of the issue.
Also present at the meeting was Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely, Lorain County Health Commissioner Dave Covell and Tom Stuber, president and CEO of The LCADA Way.
Green Mile Enterprise is a venture headed by Darrin Farrow of Westlake, who was quick to add he was born in Elyria and graduated from Elyria High School.
“I’m partial to Elyria because I grew up here, and I want to see what I can do to help with unemployment by bringing jobs to the city and to stop the tide of this heroin epidemic,” he said.
According to a 2015 profile in Crain’s Cleveland Business, his business interest grew from the suicide of his best friend and his believed link between pharmaceutical drugs and depression.
It has been a six-year passion of his that keeps him bouncing all over the country and working 12- to 14-hour days. Marijuana has not always been his profession.
Farrow is president of Pension Builders and Consultants in Rocky River. He also is a founder of MAD Farmaceuticals, which supports the legal cultivation and production of medical marijuana.
For the evening meeting, he came armed with his proposal for job growth and statistics.
According to documents from Green Mile, if the city were to have one 60,000-square-foot cultivation and processing facility, it could expect revenue of more than $60 million in retail sales and $30 million in wholesale sales. For the city, that means tax revenue and fees on the wholesale side would be more than $3 million and, depending on how many retail dispensaries the city would allow, if any, taxes could exceed another $605,000.
About 60 full-time jobs would be created, the printed proposal said.
Farrow said the business would need everything from advanced degree-holding chemists to retail workers.
Nonetheless, this initial conversation was not so much about jobs, but about the situations that could arise from turning Elyria into a cannabis town.
“Stats are a good starting point for healthy conversations, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Councilman Marcus Madison, D-5th Ward.
Will it also increase crime, drug use and the deterioration of the city’s neighborhoods?
There was no clear answer.
Stuber, whose organization is dedicated to helping people kick devastating addictions, said the impact of marijuana legalization is tangible, and city officials should not ignore them. He said he believes marijuana is addictive; and that legalizing it will not rid it from the black market or stop it from falling into the hands of kids and adolescents.
“LCADA tracks outcomes, including intent to use drugs from students through our preventive programs.” he said. “We are in 31 schools throughout Lorain County. Based on the information, they are hearing through the media, that marijuana is safe, we are seeing a shift in their attitudes toward marijuana, and a 10 percent increase in the number that report that they intend to use marijuana if legalized.”
Farrow contends a medical marijuana facility will have the opposite impact. In addition, if Elyria bans medical cannabis operations, they will simply set up shop in another part of the county.
“You cannot keep it out of your community,” he said. “You cannot tell people they cannot use this medicine that has been prescribed to them. But you can make them drive 15 miles away. You can make them buy from their neighbor’s kids because you took away easy access.”
The city’s top cop has his own perspective on the idea of medicinal marijuana and admits his opinion has changed in recent months for two reasons — the surge in deaths due to opiate-based drugs like heroin and fentanyl and the hope that people can find other ways to cope with debilitating pain.
“If you would have asked me a year ago if I thought this was a good idea, I would have said absolutely not,” Whitely said. “But this heroin is out of control. There has to be another option. My thought is it is legal — there is nothing we can do about that because the state has already decided. We would be foolish to fight against it. I would much rather have it under our control so we can get some benefit than in a neighboring community where Elyria can’t benefit or control it, but we get some of the possible problems. There is logic behind this.”
Covell, the public health expert, wanted the city to weigh the proposal judiciously.
“The problem with how this has moved so fast is that because it’s not federally legal, the Food and Drug Administration has not gotten behind a lot of this research,” he said. “Certainly, there’s no indication that having it in Elyria would be better or worse than anywhere else. As a public health official, I would have wanted the state to wait a year and gather more information. But its here now and it’s legal. No matter what you do, you will be taking a leap of faith.”
Elyria is having this discussion now on how and whether it wants to join the medical marijuana business. But other cities already have put the brakes on the growing enterprise.
In December, Lorain City Council passed an ordinance placing a 12-month moratorium on opening any medical marijuana-related businesses so the city can have time to review state rules regarding the matter as well as consider policies of its own.
The Ohio General Assembly approved the use of medical marijuana at the beginning of September. Since then, several communities have implemented similar moratoriums, including Avon, Avon Lake, North Ridgeville, Sheffield and Wellington.
Councilmen Mark Jessie, D-3rd Ward and Jack Baird, R-at large, are supporters of the cannabis request.
Jessie said he knows family and friends who could benefit from the drug. On the flip side, he sees financial benefits he can’t ignore as a city official.
“It’s going to be here,” Baird said. “Where it going to go from here, we don’t know, but I think its best to get on board with someone who has the knowledge and expertise.”