When Governor John Kasich signed the bill legalizing medical pot for Ohio in 2016, everyone involved understood that actually making marijuana available in the state was going to be a long road. An entire licensing and regulatory system needed to be made from scratch, then applications filed, licenses distributed, facilities built. A statute in the bill required all of that to be finalized and set up by September 8th, 2018. And despite even the likes of John Boehner getting on board, some municipalities vying for a dispensary are still getting resistance from residents ahead of implementation, like that quintessential suburb of suburbs, Parma, Ohio.
“People think there’s gonna be candy wrappers and trash just lying around, cause everyone is just wandering around high looking for snacks,” a staff member at the Parma mayor’s office told me, remembering a city council meeting last year with a slight ring of Parks & Rec in their voice.
Parma, which is situated just south of Cleveland, will be welcoming Parma Wellness Center LLC, one of the 12 companies to receive a Level I medical marijuana cultivation license from the state last November. The license allows them to build a 25,000-square-foot growth and cultivation facility. The company will be opening up the facility by the September deadline, and may end up being the only cultivator in Cuyahoga County. (Harvest Grows LLC was also granted a Level 1 provisional license, but they applied with two different locations, one in Cuyahoga and another in Lawrence, so they have to pick.) If this winds up being the case, the one dispensary serving Ohio’s bluest county will be situated in said county’s reddest enclave: In the 2016 presidential election, Parma favored Donald Trump by four percentage points.
The one dispensary serving Ohio’s bluest county will be situated in said county’s reddest enclave: In the 2016 presidential election, Parma favored Donald Trump by four percentage points.
Of course, in Northeast Ohio, Parma’s reputation goes beyond its identity as a Trump-supporting municipality in the middle of a deep blue county. Think of every stereotype you’ve ever heard about the suburbs, and Parma has been saddled with it: It’s 93-percent white; plastic pink flamingos adorn impeccably manicured lawns, and wood-panelled basements are in abundance. But then again, maybe a dispensary in Parma makes sense: It’s a working class town with decades long support of small businesses and a thriving healthcare community. Add to that a burgeoning base of young professionals moving in, like Parma City Councilmember Jeff Crossman.
A member since 2014, Crossman is relatively young, and handsome in a way that suggests ex-high school football player, but he can name-drop the cool bars in town with aplomb. An attorney, he lived in Cleveland’s trendy Ohio City neighborhood for many years before his company relocated to Philly, and when he came back to Ohio, a friend offered him a place to rent in Parma. He stuck around, and has become the loudest advocate for bringing medical marijuana to Parma.
“When the idea first came about, and it looked like the legislature was indeed going to pass this, every city in Northeast Ohio passed a moratorium, and I think I was the only one on council who was like, ‘Why are we doing the moratorium? We should be embracing this,’” Crossman says. “It’s a legal business, it’s a possibility for economic development. If you put this in the right neighborhood, it’s like having an anchor store at a mall. It’s going to generate economic activity, and we want to support the other small businesses in the community by providing a reason for people outside the community to come here,” he says.
During the moratorium, Crossman says, he talked to each council member one by one, and they in turn did their homework. While Crossman was in favor of opening up the whole city to the new industry, the city had reservations. Most of which, Parma Mayor Tim DeGeeter admits, came from not knowing very much about it. (DeGeeter is also pretty young looking, and highly energetic. One starts to get the feeling that the old guard is slowly being worked out of Parma government, and that young urban professionals are taking over. But like, the fiscally conservative ones.)
“When the state passed the rules, shockingly they didn’t give a roadmap or guidelines to the cities on this,” Degeeter says, explaining that the moratorium was in service of giving officials an opportunity to educate themselves. “Like other cities, right away, we didn’t know what was happening, so we put up the moratorium to get a feel. Council started having discussions. We brought in our state representative, Nick Celebrezze.” Celebrezze, a Parma Democrat like Crossman and DeGeeter, sat on the House Select Committee that vetted the medical marijuana bill. “The reality is if it didn’t come to Parma, it could go right next door to Cleveland, it could go to another community, and they’re gonna get the benefit of it. And we have a lot of needs here. Those are good paying jobs.”
Sarah (who spoke to Belt under the condition that we not use her real name) already has a good paying job in Northeast Ohio’s marijuana industry, though not of the legal variety. An underground weed dealer, she challenges the popular conception of who the average weed consumer is, saying instead of just college kids and hipsters, these days up to 50 percent of the edibles she makes go to cancer patients.
“It’s crazy how many I have,” she says. “It’s not like I solicit that kind of business. People, they get to this point, ‘Nudge nudge wink wink I’m gonna try anything,’ and then they get my number.”
Sarah anticipates when the dispensaries open in September, she’s going to lose business, but not right away. After all, getting a license for legal medical weed isn’t going to be easy. There are a lot of hoops to jump through, and only a few diseases that qualify (21 to be exact). But she’s thinking about the future.
“I think recreational weed is a foregone conclusion. It’s exactly what that looks like, which makes me nervous,” Sarah confesses. “The rich people are already looking at all the money on the table and figuring out how to carve it out for themselves. Like, for myself, there’s no path to legitimacy. I have knowledge. I have a background in it. But unless I put myself at risk, I have no way to move to a legitimate path, at least how it stands now. I’d have to work for someone who works for someone who works for someone,” she says.
The jobs at Parma Wellness, according to most sources, will pay trimmers an average of $15 an hour, just a little better than Whole Foods or Costco. In that respect, having a grow center come to town is comparatively better than a new Walmart or box store. Ads for four-hour-long trainings to qualify people to work in dispensaries and other positions are already popping up online, and the Cleveland School of Cannabis is now open and taking students.
But Sarah adds that she’ll probably look for something in one of the ancillary industries that follow legal weed: marketing, events, paraphernalia, and CBD oil being just a few. Cities like Denver have job markets already flooded with these kinds of “accessory” industries, and it’s obvious that no matter what Jeff Sessions feels, the marijuana industry is not slowing down, and it’s pulling an economic comet tail behind it.
Despite Parma’s growing number of pot proponents, it’s still the land of church-going Eastern European grandmothers and Trump supporters. As such, the proposed grow center has been safely tucked away in a business park off W. 130th, near the General Motors plant. The empty field sits across from an insurance inspection site, and will be barely visible from the main roads, hidden far away from the neatly maintained post-War bungalows with their ubiquitous plastic pink flamingos. It’s hard to think of anything growing there at all, but of course, this isn’t Ohio farmland, it’s an industrial park, in a city that has long survived by making things, whether that’s car parts or soon-to-be marijuana wax.
“People think there’s gonna be candy wrappers and trash just lying around, cause everyone is just wandering around high looking for snacks.”
DeGeeter says the Parma Wellness Center has agreed to use union and tradesmen to build the estimated $10 million facility, which is a direct win for a lot of Parma residents. Crossman feels his constituents’ reactions are about 70-percent positive, 30-percent negative. Parma’s population is steadily getting younger, and no matter who you voted for in the last election, it’s hard to turn down economic development.
“You’re always going to have the folks who believe it’s reefer madness out there, with all this crime,” he says. “I think those folks will dissipate in time as they learn more what this business is. To me, because it’s medicinal, because of the regulations in place, you’re not going to notice the difference between a medical marijuana dispensary and a CVS. Generally, people have been positive, and have understood the connection between generating economic activity and stuff getting done in the city, like roads being paved, police being funded, all that stuff.”
“We did get pushback,” says DeGeeter. “When council passed the ordinance for the rezoning in the industrial park to allow for medical marijuana, we were very proactive on this, and very methodical: We asked the applicant to go knock on doors in the neighborhood. Introduce yourself. Tell them it’s a medical building.”
DeGeeter adds, “The state is regulating signage so much, you may not even know driving by that the dispensary is even there serving patients. It’s no different to me than a CVS or a Walgreens.” This line gets repeated by almost everyone: It will look like a CVS. It’s gonna look exactly like a CVS. We promise, it’s just like a CVS.
The development agreement for the dispensary also includes the company using off-duty Parma cops for security. And if everything goes well with these first two businesses, the grow center and the dispensary, Parma will have successfully paved the way for a whole new wave of economic activity in its borders.
“I think it’s a possibility,” says Crossman, anticipating an economic boom for Parma. “I think we have to see how this phase works. There’s a limited number of licenses that are going to be out there, so it’ll be dependent on how many licenses are available. At this point, the mayor prefers to use the variance process [where each permit needs an individual zoning exception], but I think if someone came to us with a plan, no matter where it is, the city would be open to entertaining the idea.
“There is a transition that’s been going on for a while from manufacturing to other sources and other industries,” says Crossman. “Our economic philosophy has been you don’t have to hit home runs every time. You can take smaller swings and hit singles and doubles and triples, and those are just as effective in moving the economic needle as a home run. You get a marijuana dispensary, those little businesses add up over time. The old school mentality of we’re going to attract a huge manufacturer or an Amazon or something like that, while that would be awesome, the reality is that doesn’t happen very often. We have to be focused on what we can do, which is creating the right business climate for small businesses to grow.”
Banner photo: A medical marijuana storefront in Denver, Colorado, by O’Dea via Wikimedia Commons. In Parma, pot proponents are quick to assure, “Don’t worry, it’ll look like a CVS.”
Bridget Callahan is a writer from Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.
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