Ann Arbor Gas station to Grass Station? Owner eyes pot shop City has pushed back against allowing dispensary to open

By Ryan J. Stanton

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) -- After closing his gas station on Liberty Street just west of downtown Ann Arbor about six years ago, Garth Bolgos wondered what he might do with the property.

"It was a gas station for 20 years," Bolgos said. "My partner and I ran it since 1990 and finally we had to close her down due to the economic situation."

He spent two years trying to sell the place with no luck. Eventually an old friend from high school who suffers from multiple sclerosis proposed an idea.

"He suggested that I open up a dispensary because he had no place to get his medication," Bolgos said. "And that's what spurred me on to open it up as a medical dispensary."

And so the small building at 325 W. Liberty St. went from gas station to Grass Station -- the name Bolgos and his wife, Leslie, picked for their new medical marijuana operation.

But opening for business has been an uphill battle for the mom-and-pop shop. The city has pushed back, arguing the dispensary wasn't open before an August 2010 moratorium on new dispensaries was put in place by the Ann Arbor City Council.

The city's citizen-led medical marijuana licensing board is recommending the council grant the Grass Station a dispensary license anyway. But until that happens, Bolgos and his wife are afraid to open for business.

"Right now we have just our own patients," he said. "We don't have any from the public because we had a cease and desist letter from the city attorney. I was in fear that they would probably just come in and raid me, and so I've been shut down ever since."

As Bolgos and his wife fight to open a dispensary, they're making use of the Grass Station as a hub for the statewide push to legalize marijuana for people 21 and older. It will serve as a drive-thru signature station for the campaign from now through early July.

Bolgos and his wife, as well as his mother-in-law, are state-registered medical marijuana caregivers, and they each have patients they serve. But they're not able to open the retail-style dispensary they want because of the pushback they've received from the city.

"On the Grass Station, they couldn't open up because they're post-moratorium under our own ordinance," said City Attorney Stephen Postema. "And it's not clear they've provided anything to show that they would be compliant with our licensing ordinance. Either way, they've got to go through the procedure, so that's the position they're in right now."

Dispensary or no dispensary, Bolgos wants to revamp the aging building, which has fallen into a state of disrepair. But he said the city won't let him. His wife, Leslie, is just as frustrated.

"We're trying to do something beneficial to the community and do something worthwhile with our property," she said.

In addition to the Grass Station, nine other dispensaries are awaiting licenses from the city, but most of them are open for business right now because they were up and running before the moratorium hit.

An ordinance approved by the City Council last year in the spirit of allowing access to medical marijuana in Ann Arbor states dispensaries can continue to operate pending final action on their applications unless a building official determines they must be closed for safety reasons. The city attorney believes it applies only to dispensaries that already have been determined to be compliant with state law.

Postema said no dispensaries in the city are legally operating until they've been licensed, and none are licensed yet. He believes any dispensary with a sales model violates state law.

"The courts have said, for instance, you can't sell," Postema said. "And so if they're selling, you can't do that. It's just as simple as that."

More than 322,600 signatures from registered voters in Michigan are needed to put the legalization question on the November ballot. With fewer than 100 days to go before the deadline, the Repeal Today campaign reports it has collected about 12,000 signatures.

"We have 2,500-plus volunteers and the number is growing quickly, so we're ready to turn them on," said Ryan Munevar, one of the campaign's behind-the-scenes leaders.

Published: Thu, Apr 26, 2012