Why Some Northeast Ohio Communities are Banning Recreational Marijuana Dispensaries, and Why Others Are Buying In

“Having the ability to utilize marijuana is one thing. But having it get sold in a community that’s very family-centric is a totally different thing”

click to enlarge A Nirvana medical marijuana dispensary - Photo by Mark Oprea
Photo by Mark Oprea
A Nirvana medical marijuana dispensary

It’s possible to say that Brian Adams’ journey into the world of cannabis activism began with a film canister.

It was March 11, 2006, and Adams was an introverted 22-year-old working at a restaurant in Bedford. As an east side teenager, Adams had indulged in marijuana but was certainly not immersed in the world.

Regardless, a dishwasher gifted him a film container's worth of bud as Adams was ending his shift for the night.

Outside in the parking lot he was met by two police cruisers. He was arrested, and later convicted of “drug abuse” in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas and fined $255. Because possession of marijuana—a Schedule I narcotic at time—was classified as a fourth-degree misdemeanor, Adams spent the following decade managing the lingering spoils of a drug charge: cold shoulders by landlords, stigma when dealing with HR departments, a fate dealt to tens of thousands of other Ohioans.

“It could keep you from getting a job,” he said. “Even in the cannabis field!”

Today, thanks to the actions of Ohio voters this past November, Adams’ pocketful of weed—and its smoking—warrants no more than a shoulder shrug in the eyes of law enforcement and city and state legislators. A process that’s taken years as Ohio voted in favor of Issue 2 and legalized recreational weed and decriminalized small possession following a string of failed attempts stretching back decades.

Issue 2, the second attempt to legalize recreational pot in the state, passed with 57% of the statewide vote (roughly 3 million Ohioans) in November.

But the following law that went on the books in December came with an interesting dilemma for cities from Toledo to Athens: individuals could possess weed, up to 2.5 ounces, and could even grow a half dozen cannabis plants in their bedroom or “secured closet.” But actually supplying THC gummies or weed vapes for the public, that would be a decision left to the cities themselves. Who, lawmakers said, “may adopt a resolution, by majority vote, to prohibit, or limit the number of adult-use cannabis operators.”

With the state set to, finally, allow recreational sales beginning with established licensed medical dispensaries, the question of where Northeast Ohioans will be able to buy weed is one still coming into focus.

Some cities, as when medical marijuana was legalized, have wanted nothing to do with the sale of weed. Others were gung-ho.

Some bucolic suburbs have used the opportunity as a chance to stand in favor of “preserving values” and legislating morals. But those moves have stood against the majority of voters.

In Northeast Ohio, where 98% of cities and towns voted to legalize recreational usage, only Linndale, a tiny village of just 109 people, actually said no to Issue 2. From January to mid-June, 55 towns and cities across Ohio issued indefinite bans or temporary moratoriums on adult-use dispensaries, citing needed zoning law updates or so-called incompatibility with town values. Fourteen of those are in Northeast Ohio—Avon Lake, Beachwood, Elyria, Hudson, Middleburg Heights, Kirtland, Medina, Richmond Heights, North Olmsted, North Ridgeville, North Royalton, Orange, Strongsville and Westlake.

There will be dispensaries in Cleveland, however. City Council passed legislation in May ensuring that adult-use dispensaries don’t pop up within 500 feet of any sensitive areas—schools, churches, playgrounds, parks—but in appropriate retail districts. (Which was pretty much just a copy-paste of Ohio law.)

But the bans and temporary moratoriums on dispensaries elsewhere came in quickly. In May, Elyria City Council passed a temporary moratorium by an 8-2 vote on adult-use dispensaries, citing issues with current zoning laws. The same thing happened In Beachwood. “If the thrust is to treat marijuana like alcohol,” Beachwood Councilwoman Ali Stern told Scene, “we need to treat marijuana like alcohol. And I think make our decisions accordingly.”

The same mentality pervaded the vote in Elyria’s council: we’re not rejecting weed sales, but just asking for more time to “study” the issue at hand. (“Study what?” Adams told me. “You’ve had seven years to study.”)

“We do need to get the proper legislation in place as to where and how these things can operate,” Councilman Jack Cerra, who voted for Elyria’s moratorium, told Scene. “You know, it’s no secret that the state’s running way behind the eight ball on this thing, getting their stuff together.” Cerra clarified his stance. “It was really just to buy us some time. And who knows what the next comment is coming out of Columbus.”

Paula Savchenko, the founder of Cannacore Group, a multi-state cannabis and psychedelic licensing firm that has aided weed entrepreneurs in navigating laws in Colorado and California, said she tends to see through Ohio’s wave of springtime pot moratoriums. Even when local laws say nothing about dispensary builds in the first place. “A lot of the time, they are just using [moratoriums] as an excuse. They just want to kind of kick the can down the road and deal with it later,” Savchenko said. “It’s somewhat of a cop out. I mean, there’s some truth to it. But it is a cop out.”

Similar political skepticism exists in Lakewood, where eight out of 10 residents voted for Issue 2 last November. In Councilman Tristan Rader’s mind, the adult-use tax benefit, which could be triple that of what Lakewood sees from its two medical dispensaries, outweighs any uneasiness with social mores.

Medical, he said, is the best buffer to gauge how a city’s going to respond to recreational sales. Having RISE on Detroit Avenue, arguably Northeast Ohio’s most prolific dispensary thus far, should dispel any preconceived notions about adult-use corrupting societal norms. (Especially when, he said, they open for rec in “late June, early July.”)

“I think others cry NIMBY, or fear that this is something that’s gonna get out of control,” Rader told Scene. “But in reality, it’s not half as scary as people think it’s going to be.”

Include some in Avon Lake in the batch of those who think so.

“Here’s how I look at it,” Avon Lake Councilman Rob Shahmir, who voted back in May for an indefinite ban on adult-use dispensaries, told Scene. “Having the ability to utilize marijuana is one thing. But having it get sold in a community that’s very family-centric is a totally different thing.”

When reminded that 60% of Avon Lakers voted to legalize recreational use, Shahmir doubled down on his dichotomy. “It’s legal for you to possess and use,” he said. “It’s having a facility that’s close to children, where children are the cental point of the community. That’s the problem.”

Fellow Avon Lake Councilman David Kos, who voted against the ban, balked at Shahmir’s suggestion. “I just can’t square the two in my mind,” he said. “You can be family-friendly and still have a well-regulated dispensary that has rules in place to ensure the safety of the community.”

In Middleburg Heights, where 45% of households are families, Council stepped in almost immediately, in January, to attempt to preserve the pristine character of its family centrism. By May 28, a law was passed 8-2 outlawing any regulated sales of gummies or loose bud, despite both the slim margin—52% of Middleburg went for pot—and the estimated income tax perk of $230,000 a year.

“What is our reputation worth?” Councilman Dan Sage questioned at the May meeting. “What is our public safety worth? What would the cost be of increased DUIs, of increased police, fire and EMS calls?"

On a recent Thursday in June, four days after the DCC opened its portal for adult-use applications (which would solely be for medical dispensaries for now), Scene drove to Middleburg Heights to meet with Councilman Tim Ali to hear more of his reasoning behind his push to outlaw adult-use sales. It was a sunny day in the beginning of an inviting summer, so kids were running around the waterpark of Middleburg’s gargantuan rec center. Moms pushed strollers down the Big Creek Parkway. Dads leaned on roaring lawnmowers.

A Middleburg resident for 61 years, and on council for 31 of those, Ali carries the kind of hometown protectionism one might expect from a postwar mayor. Ali is bald and wears a red-and-blue tie over a tucked-in white shirt that suggests he might be out on the campaign trail. When asked why he voted to ban recreational weed, Ali was quick to remind that his wife is a doctor. “And she was against it also,” he said.

“But 52% of residents here voted for it.”

click to enlarge Middleburg Heights councilman Tim Ali - Photo by Mark Oprea
Photo by Mark Oprea
Middleburg Heights councilman Tim Ali
“I mean, the election was close,” he added, standing in a driveway of one of his rentals he manages off Big Creek Parkway, two blocks down from City Hall. “It’s like anything else. When something is that close, you know, 2%, that’s pretty darn close to being 50-50. Half of the people want it; half of the people don’t.”

Ali readjusted his tie, and worried at the Canon DSLR camera he uses to snap photos of his properties. “Bottom line here,” he said, “we don’t want to make it easier for folks to get recreational weed.”

Out of the 23 other states that have legalized marijuana over the past two decades, Ohio has, as one might expect, some of the tightest regulations for adult-use weed. (Ohio “really came out the gate swinging,” Adams said.) Such a cautious push played out at Gov. Mike DeWine’s podium and the state legislators that sought, through proposed rewrites, to curtail Issue 2’s fruits in some way—limit homegrown plants, bolster the adult-use tax from 10% to 15%.

And such rules, overseen by the DCC and approved in June, seem to put dispensaries, both medical and adult-use, in the same level of surveillance as a federal bank or the Louvre. For one, every single piece of a dispensary—from its name to its logo on its business card—must be vetted and approved by the DCC. All visitors, who must sign in before entering the sealed off showroom, must display a visitor's badge and be escorted “at all times.” And every inch of the store, from its restricted access areas to waste receptacles where expired stock is tossed out (sometimes with kitty litter), must be “constantly monitored and video surveilled” in a 24-hour feed viewable by, if he so pleases, an officer of the DCC in Columbus.

“Every single thing that you see here, every sign, every package, every piece of advertising that we have,” Muhammad Warraich, an operations manager at the Nirvana Center off Cleveland Street in Elyria, told Scene on a tour of the facility in June, “has been submitted and approved by the state.”

Warraich, a soft-voiced man in a ballcap that says “STOP AND SMELL THE FLOWER,” spent five years at dispensaries in Maryland and Arizona before flying to Ohio to open the state’s first Nirvana Center. Like dozens, if not hundreds, of out-of-state cultivators, growers, distributors, or operators, Warraich was a part of this massive influx of those looking to leverage new state law to make a buck, all while tiptoeing carefully towards adult-use sales—Nirvana is med-only now—as city councils made up their minds about weed’s value as a commodity in their backyards.

It’s why, one could say, he turned to Brian Adams. After six years as head of the Cleveland School of Cannabis, and campaigning for Issue 2 with the Sensible Movement Coalition, Adams felt hungry to return to the retail floor. He had worked years back for Ashtabula’s first drive-thru med dispensary, Italian Herbs, but felt compelled to be a part of Ohio’s transition into adult-use culture. Warraich hired Adams as his assistant general manager. “He just had the experience,” he said.

And, of course, be that liaison to government skeptics. “I mean, I’m still dragging folks to city council meetings,” Adams said. “Like, I’m still doing the honorary advocacy part of this. Because that’s how we protect the existence.”

On June 11, a week or so after Elyria City Council passed a temporary moratorium on adult-use dispensaries, and three days after Nirvana’s medical soft opening, Warraich, Adams and Roberta Rosa, Nirvana’s general manager who worked for three years at Lorain’s RISE dispensary, gathered on the retail floor to both continue their shop set-up and discuss the somewhat nebulous future, even if the state awards Nirvana an adult-use license. (Like some 130 others, they applied on June 7.)

click to enlarge Brian Adams at Nirvana - Photo by Mark Oprea
Photo by Mark Oprea
Brian Adams at Nirvana

Three members of council had stopped by, presumably out of both duty and curiosity, to tour Nirvana, which didn’t seem to completely sell Nirvana’s management. “They keep on moving the goalposts,” Rosa said. “You know, like, people already voted, so just let it happen. I mean, all the research, in my mind, has already been done.”

Adams himself possessed bigger-picture optimism, despite the kind of legal limbo Nirvana’s in. Half of the country is now legal, Adams said, and this fact implies that Ohio, with all its qualities as a swing state, could be what it takes to bring legal rec on the federal level.

“As soon as we did it, the whole nation is going to look at it,” Adams said. “You think Pennsylvania’s not? Indiana? If Indiana’s not thinking about it now, then I can’t wrap my head around why not.”

“It’s a big domino to fall,” Warraich said. “It could happen.”

“Could you imagine how Indiana feels?” Rosa added. “Ohio is going. Illinois. Michigan.”

“Look at Kentucky!” Adams said. “They’re working on medical right up under us.”

“They have cannabis FOMO.”

Adams smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “As might the rest of the country.”

But will Elyria? Will Middleburg Heights one day? Any observers of Elyria’s Ely Square, with its turn-of-the-century fountain and memorials, might be able to imagine a dispensary filling one of its many vacant retail spaces. Or not, depending on its council’s underlying motives. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘We agree, but we don’t want it around us,’” Della Anthony, 33, a mother of three, said eating McDonald’s at a picnic bench in the square. “Come on. It’s something that comes out the ground. It should’ve been legal a long time ago.”

click to enlarge Elyria City Hall - Photo by Mark Oprea
Photo by Mark Oprea
Elyria City Hall

Over at the Mystical Moon Boutique is shop owner Jennifer Jones, who sells CBD oils and glass pipes under the impression they’re used for “tobacco products.” “It’s all just ridiculous,” she told Scene. “We put it on the ballot. And they’re gonna try and undermine us like they’re our parents. Why are we voting if that’s how it’s going to happen?”

Vicki Wall, 74, a retiree from Flint, Mich., approached the counter with three bags of clothing and paraphernalia. When informed of the cultural shift in Ohio weed, Wall smiled, then revealed she’d “smoked twice since 1968.” Michigan went legal. She wanted to smoke. So, she did.

“And now I love it,” Wall said. She leaned in for a whisper: “Behind closed doors, I can say that. Just don’t tell my grandchildren.”

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Mark Oprea

Mark Oprea is a staff writer at Scene. For the past seven years, he's covered Cleveland as a freelance journalist, and has contributed to TIME, NPR, the Pacific Standard and the Cleveland Magazine. He's the winner of two Press Club awards.
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