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The Jewish News: Michigan’s Cannabis Industry, Propelled by Jews and ex-Detroit Lions, Takes off ...

By Madeline Halpert - 07/02/2020 10:00 AM

Josh Weinberg is one of many Jews in Michigan to become intimately involved in the cannabis industry since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2008.

When Josh Weinberg was working as an attorney at Honigman LLP in Detroit, he couldn’t imagine that just a few years later he’d be in the cannabis business — much less enter a partnership with one of the best wide receivers in NFL history. 

In 2017, Weinberg met former Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. and guard Rob Sims, and a business venture was born. After their football careers ended, Johnson and Sims had been using cannabis products to treat long-term inflammation and joint pain resulting from the beatings they endured on the field.

They saw a chance to invest in a product with “untapped health benefits.” Weinberg saw a great business opportunity and a chance to form a partnership with a highly respected Detroit household name. 

“It was just the perfect timing,” Johnson told the Jewish News. “I wanted to get involved and see how much we could do in the industry.” 

Two years later, in 2019, Weinberg opened Weinberg Family Enterprises, a medical marijuana growing facility in Webberville, Michigan. With Johnson, Sims, Jared Bundgaard and Adi Twina, he co-founded an affiliated brand and cannabis research company, PRIMITIV.

Weinberg is one of many Jews in Michigan to become intimately involved in the cannabis industry since the state legalized medical marijuana in 2008. Since then, Jews have come to occupy a variety of roles in the business, including helping to draft statewide marijuana laws, as well as working in marketing, advocacy, testing laboratories, growing facilities and secure transportation.

And marijuana appears to be pandemic-proof. While many businesses have struggled to remain afloat during the economic recession brought on by COVID-19, many local cannabis businesses are doing better than ever. 

Legal Gray Areas

Adam Goldberg, the CEO of Evergreen Logistics, a licensed marijuana transportation firm in Grass Lake, Michigan, says one of the reasons he was attracted to the cannabis business was the thrill of being a part of something new.

“You don’t get too many opportunities to be a pioneer in an industry,” he said.

When Benjamin Rosman and Lev Spivak-Birndorf opened their testing facility, PSI Laboratories, in Ann Arbor in 2012, it was one of only two such laboratories in Michigan.

Rosman says he was inspired by his own cautionary experiences with unsafe cannabis products. On one occasion, Rosman bought an improperly labeled CBD pretzel edible. The product ended up containing psychoactive THC. After this experience, Rosman and Spivak-Birndorf wanted to help create safer products for consumers and become involved in a growing and changing cannabis industry.

Now, as one of only a couple laboratories in the state licensed to test adult-use and medical marijuana, PSI Labs works to ensure the safety of products before they arrive at dispensaries. Their team of scientists tests for potential contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and microbial contamination, along with potency. Spivak-Birndorf says that since the opening, their business and the cannabis industry have grown beyond their expectations. 

In 2018, legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana helped expand the cannabis industry in Michigan. But Matthew Abel, the founder of Cannabis Counsel, a firm specializing in marijuana law in Detroit, explains that the law has not paved the way for all parts of the state.

Abel, who was one of 20 people involved in drafting the adult-use marijuana bill, explains that the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs in Michigan (LARA)’s interpretation of the law requires city councils to pass an ordinance before recreational dispensaries and other cannabis facilities can operate in the area. 

Abel has since spent time visiting many city councils to encourage them to opt in to recreational marijuana. But with more than 1,700 municipalities in the state of Michigan, this is no easy task.

Ferndale, Hazel Park and Walled Lake are some of the Metro Detroit municipalities that have already allowed the sale of adult-use marijuana. In Detroit, however, which currently has only medical marijuana dispensaries and facilities, a lawsuit is pending that seeks to require the city to allow certain recreational dispensaries.

On Nov. 1, 2019, the state had already started accepting adult-use marijuana license applications for Detroit. On Nov. 12, the Detroit City Council passed an ordinance banning adult-use stores and facilities. Those suing the State of Michigan say that businesses who applied for adult-use licenses within these 11 days should be allowed to sell recreational marijuana. 

But some businesses in the cannabis industry have benefited from the opt-in approach. Goldberg says that a reason his business has been successful is because it was located in a municipality that opted into the ordinance, allowing him to gain a license before others. “This put us at a tremendous advantage where we could be one of the leaders in our industry,” he said. 

Nevertheless, licensed cannabis businesses face several other practical issues in the state. Weinberg says that because marijuana is not legal on the federal level, some landlords are afraid of leasing real estate, and banks are hesitant to give out loans for fear of legal repercussions.

“As long as it is considered a schedule 1 drug, we will not be able to access the normal banking system,” Weinberg said. 

Johnson says that to combat this problem, a successful cannabis venture requires solid investors. 

Abel says that, ultimately, implementation of the legalization of recreational marijuana “should give more opportunity to people who have been impacted by the unfair drug laws.”

Johnson, who recently issued a statement about police brutality and cannabis criminal justice reform on behalf of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, says communities of color have been disproportionately affected by these prohibition laws. For this reason, he and Sims feel their new role in the cannabis industry is a chance to work toward progress and equity.

“It’s an opportunity for us to create our own narrative, especially being minorities working in a business that has greatly affected the Black community,” Johnson said.

Cannabis Under COVID-19

Despite these legal gray areas and financial technicalities, many cannabis industry owners are thriving — even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Goldberg says that the cannabis business has gotten even stronger during this time. “People have had some of their best weeks under COVID,” he said. 

Jerry Millen, owner of The GreenHouse of Walled Lake dispensary, says that on an average business day during the COVID-19 pandemic, the store sees 700 to 800 cars come for curbside delivery.

Business has been so successful that on May 29, Millen started offering free 20- minute consultations on cannabis products to all medical marijuana and recreational users.

“People who wouldn’t even try cannabis before are reaching out because of a lot of anxiety and stress,” he said.

Curbside pickup has been a huge boon, too. Millen is grateful to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for legalizing this service for the industry. He says he has been advocating for curbside pickup even before COVID-19, in particular for medical marijuana patients.

“I have people who are in wheelchairs, paraplegics, people with stage four cancer. Just for them to get out of their vehicle is a 20-minute process,” he said. Millen hopes the state will consider permanently legalizing this service even after the pandemic.

Despite an uptick in business for many owners, Abel feels the cannabis industry is still being discriminated against in the midst of the coronavirus. He says that marijuana businesses are not eligible for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which offers loans for small businesses. He finds this ironic, since many governors, including Whitmer, have deemed marijuana dispensaries as essential businesses.

Jewish Values

In the past decade, Jews have come to play an important role in the cannabis industry in Michigan. Half of the six cannabis testing facilities in the state are owned by Jews, including PSI Laboratories, Steadfast Analytical Laboratories in Hazel Park and Iron Laboratories in Walled Lake. 

Spivak-Birndorf says he has met several Jews working behind the scenes in laboratories, growing and processing facilities. From a science perspective, he’s not surprised to find Jews in cannabis laboratories.

“The stereotype is we have a lot of nerds,” he said. 

In addition to the scientific aspects of the business, Spivak-Birndorf believes Jews might be attracted to the cannabis industry because of their willingness to question things. “We are allowed to ask questions to our God in a way that maybe other religions aren’t as often,” he said. “We’re attracted to groundbreaking, rule-changing sorts of industries in that way.”

For Mort Meisner, the CEO of Grow Cannabis Marketing in Royal Oak, the pull to the cannabis industry for Jews, and many others, is as simple as opportunity. “Those of us of the Jewish faith, many of us are very entrepreneurial,” he said.

Many of those involved in the cannabis industry don’t find their work to be at odds with their Jewish roots. Goldberg says though there tends to be a lot of misinformation and stigmatization of the industry, he sees cannabis as a business like any other. 

Some even feel their Jewish values inspire the work they do. Weinberg says that the Jewish principle of helping others is present when his products provide symptom relief to medical marijuana patients.

Additionally, Weinberg explains that for years, people have been unjustly incarcerated and prosecuted due to their cannabis use. Changing the mentality around marijuana is, to him, a chance to help those who were previously subjected to a discriminatory system. “It very much goes along with the Jewish ethos of helping the downtrodden,” he said. 

Spivak-Birndorf sees some similarities between the process of kosher certification and cannabis safety testing. He says their lab also works to uphold a code of safety and quality. “It involves both the ethical standpoint about what’s right and wrong, as well as setting a minimum baseline in terms of quality for what you expect a product to have if you are going to consume it,” he said. 

For others, cannabis and Judaism go back a long way. “They’re both ancient,” Abel said. Abel adds that it’s only been in the last 100 years that cannabis has been villainized, but that thousands of years before that, Jews likely used cannabis. 

Looking Ahead

When Whitmer approved the opening of retail spaces in the state for up to 10 customers at a time, she cleared the way for dispensaries to open their doors again. But for those in the retail sector of the cannabis industry, reopening stores under the coronavirus presents particular challenges.

Millen says it will be a difficult transition back to welcoming customers in the dispensary. He is most concerned for the health of his medical marijuana patients, who sometimes have weakened immune systems.

Some feel confident in the industry’s ability to bounce back. Rosman says the economic trajectory of the industry before the coronavirus will be indicative of its future.

“Everyone was going through this tremendous growth period when the entire world was hit by the pandemic, and it knocked the world off its axis,” he said.

In two to three months, he hopes the industry will start to see some of that same growth start back up again. 

Even in the wake of a pandemic, Weinberg plans on expanding his business to dispensaries in the near future. When he obtains his adult-use medical marijuana license, Weinberg explains that Johnson and Sims will serve as central ambassadors for the company and its cannabis products through the PRIMITIV brand. Sims says he and Johnson are looking forward to the opportunity to work with diverse groups to create cannabis products for the masses.

Ultimately, many see huge economic potential in the future of the cannabis industry in Michigan and the United States. Abel says some are calling it the new dotcom boom. If approached with the right planning and forethought, he views the industry as an economic driver and a development tool that communities, including Jews, would do well to embrace.

“It would be nice if the Jewish community could assist in the cannabis mission,” he said. “I think it helps bring the world together, tikkun olam.”

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