When a body was spotted on May 29, 2018, floating in the Detroit River, US Border Control officers were investigating a potential crime.
Arriving in front of a warehouse the size of a city block in Detroit’s West Vernor neighborhood, the customs officials asked the building’s occupants to access the riverfront where the body was last seen. The response was, “Of course.”
Four days later, the occupants in the same building had another group of uniformed visitors — this time not as polite.
Upon seeing members of Detroit’s Police Gang Intel Unit, Cortea Jones gathered the paperwork and permits corresponding to the legal marijuana facility. Jones, a professional with a master’s degree in administrative science from Fairleigh Dickinson University, walked out to meet the Detroit police.
“The police grabbed her, threw her to the ground – the papers went flying – and held a gun to her head,” said Wanda James, owner of Denver-based Simply Pure dispensaries and a close friend of Jones.
Five additional people at the facility received the same treatment, which included “handcuffs and guns to the head,” James told Marijuana.com. “At no point did the cops call the city to ask if the grow site was legal.”
Six people were arrested and spent four days in jail before being arraigned. Detroit news programs touted a “million-dollar pot bust” and referred to the site as a high-tech, sophisticated operation. Detroit police Sgt. Gary Johnson said there must have been “a lot of man-hours and a lot of money to put this together.”
He was right.
“Of course it was sophisticated and yes, a lot of money went into it. They’re growing clean, legal medical cannabis for a reputable businessman — Al Harrington,” James said.
“It’s openly obvious in the neighborhood; high-tech and spotlessly clean. The 95-car parking lot with handicap spaces and a motorized gate should have been a dead giveaway,” Harrington told Marijuana.com. “Yet they burst in with their AR-15s at the ready.”
Harrington said that Viola Extracts had a temporary cannabis business permit from the city of Detroit, and that the grow facility had been inspected and approved by the city. A press representative from the city’s Buildings Safety Engineering and Environmental Department wrote in an email that, “This business was not granted a zoning approval as a growth facility because the City of Detroit does not yet have zoning in place for grow facilities.”
The Detroit Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs would not confirm if Viola Extracts had been granted a state license. A spokesperson said that medical marijuana applications are confidential.
“We worked for over a year-and-a-half to get every single piece of paperwork done properly,” Harrington said. “Our goal is to bring well-paying jobs into Detroit for people of color, so we took every precaution to make sure all the details were in place.”
He said the incident speaks to a larger issue: The disproportionate impact of prohibition on people of color and their difficulty in entering the legal cannabis industry.
“The cannabis industry was established on the backs of black people, yet we’re having a hard time being accepted into it, not to mention that we’re still victims of over-policing and mass incarceration,” Harrington said.
An American Civil Liberties Union report notes that despite roughly equal usage rates, African-Americans are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana. In Detroit, cannabis makes up 9.3 percent of all arrests, according to Michigan State Police data.
“Raids like this can set people back for a long time, maybe destroy them forever – especially people of color,” Harrington said. “The six people arrested at our facility, five of whom are college graduates by the way, even had their cars impounded.”
James, a businesswoman who has worked in politics, said she and her colleagues are trying to make it better for “African-Americans to exist in the cannabis space without these kinds of attacks that can permanently ruin them. Not everyone has politicians and rich folks on speed dial.”
The 50,000-square-foot building now stands empty after police confiscated more than a thousand pounds of harvest-ready plants and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cutting-edge equipment. Harrington said the site was meant to be a cultivation, manufacturing and retail outlet for medical marijuana.
“We want to provide good jobs in the neighborhood and create community to encourage people to be all they can be. For the moment, our goal is to get our people out of harm’s way,” Harrington said.
Harrington couldn’t discuss the case, but said he is hoping to have the charges dropped. The next court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, July 31, 2018.
Either way, Harrington said he and his colleagues are in it for the long haul.
“We’re not discouraged,” he said. “We’re blessed and we’re going to keep fighting. No one is going to stop us from coming to Detroit.”