Despite legalization, most marijuana is still bought illegally

New concerns are being raised about the marijuana black market and how much is ending up in the hands of kids
Special Report: Marijuana Part I
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 11:58 AM EDT
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This is part one of a two-part series on marijuana. You can watch or read part two here.

HOUGHTON, Mich. (WLUC) - As more marijuana shops continue to open in the U.P., new concerns are being raised about the black market. Most cannabis sales are still being done illegally despite recreational use being legal in Michigan. Some of that ending up in the hands of kids.

Since Michigan voters voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2018, cannabis stores have popped up across the U.P.

However, a study by the Michigan Cannabis Manufactures Association shows 70 percent of people buying marijuana are still getting it illegally.

That’s why Michigan State Police has a Marijuana and Tobacco Investigations Section. Its commander, Chris Hawkins, says some marijuana on the black market is getting to people under the legal age of 21.

“I would probably consider our number one priority retail establishment that are not licensed and are selling to underage individuals,” said Detective First Lt. Chris Hawkins, Michigan State Police Marijuana and Tabaco Investigations Section Commander.

Penny Milkey, a partner at Northern Specialty Health in Houghton, says her store IDs anyone who comes in as all licensed stores are required to do.

“We don’t want to see any child get it,” said Milkey. “You have to be of age to get it.”

Milkey says the study shows people are slowly becoming more comfortable buying pot in stores.

“As the stigma lessons, and more people feel comfortable coming into stores, we think that number is just going to rise and less and less people are going to be purchasing from the illicit market,” said Milkey.

However, Hawkins says since marijuana was legalized in Michigan, he’s actually seen an increase in illegal activity.

The commander has led MSP’s marijuana investigations section since its formation in 2017. Hawkins says the unit has detectives across the state, including in the U.P., stopping illegal marijuana sales.

Detectives are seizing 500 pounds of marijuana flower every month and 5,000 units of marijuana edibles and other cannabis products, according to Hawkins.

The lieutenant believes people are still buying marijuana off the black market because it is cheaper, and it is what people were used to.

“I think there are still a lot of people who have an established relationship with someone, and they had a guy five years ago,” said Hawkins. “That guy is still selling so why move into the licensed market?”

Hawkins also says the loosening of marijuana jail time, and expungement opportunities, has made it harder to slow down the black market.

“Many operators we take enforcement action on go right back to their illegal activities because of the leniencies of penalties,” said Hawkins.

MSP says it’s also concerned about what could be in untested, illegal marijuana. Northern Specialty Health, as required by state law, tests all its products before selling it.

“Everything that comes here, we know is safe from pesticides and mold,” said Milkey. “It’s good. It’s clean. It’s safe.”

On Wednesday, during the final part of our series, I’ll look into why Great Lakes Recovery Centers, a non-profit helping people with substance abuse, says marijuana is an addictive drug that people should not be using. However, Northern Specialty Health says it is doing more to help people with substance abuse problems. I’ll look at both sides Wednesday on your TV6 News Tonight at 7, 6 central.

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