Michigan legalized medical cannabis consumption via a voter referendum in 2008, but you’d be hard pressed to know it by looking at what the state has done recently.
Only last year, the state passed laws requiring cannabusinesses to be licensed, and at the time, they set a deadline of a little over a year for businesses to become licensed, or face shutting down. Now, they’ve had to extend that deadline because they aren’t ready to accept licenses, but not before threatening to shut down operating dispensaries.
The Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) recently passed an emergency regulation setting up a phase-out of unlicensed cannabusinesses that will require them to stop operation by December 15th or face legal repercussions. However, leading up to passing the regulation, the board was considering the previous hard-stop date of September 15th, in order to comply with a 2013 ruling from the state Supreme Court, which declared Michigan cannabis dispensaries a public nuisance.
Two of the board’s seven members still support the September date, board chairman Rick Johnson and former state police officer Don Bailey. “I understand that LARA thinks that December 15th is an appropriate date, but my date is September 15th,” Bailey said. “Operating a dispensary now is a violation of the law, and it has been. I’m not going to support someone who stays open.”
Even with the extension, this roll-out is likely going to cause a gap in coverage for Michigan’s patients, because LARA isn’t expecting to issue licenses until the first quarter of 2018. That could leave people like Jason Durham of Lansing, Michigan, in the lurch for weeks or even months.
Durham has a medical marijuana card, and needs the medicine to function. “I have two rods in my spine, and I have been forced to rely on dispensaries because without access to medicine, I can’t get out of bed,” he said. “Cannabis has given me an active life back. If you reduce our access, where do you want us to go, other than the black market?”
Some dispensaries, like Greener Crossing in Detroit, Michigan, are planning to stay open no matter what. Its manager, Nathan Oakes, called the people providing safe access to medicine the real heroes. Oakes is also a veteran and says his prescription literally saved his life. “Plenty of times, I considered taking my own life, and I can tell you that medical marijuana has saved my life.”
He has no plans to close up on the 15th, and is organizing his fellow veterans to make their message heard. “We want to provide uninterrupted access to patients,” Oakes said. “We’re a large and strong political voice.”
Adding to Michigan business owner’s difficulties is that it can be difficult to comply with the law, and Michigan law enforcement organizations are actively raiding businesses they see as illegal. They seize assets, and set up a legal siege, where owners can choose to fight their charges, but their business, and any assets related to it, are frozen for duration of the trials.
Two owners of a set of growing facilities in Flint, Michigan, recently pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of maintaining a drug house as the result of a raid last year. That’s a sharp reduction from the charges Gary Metzger and Troy Hall faced initially, which included racketeering, possession with intent to deliver and conspiracy. If found guilty on all counts, they would have faced up to 20 years in prison.
According to the duo’s attorney, Kenneth Scott, they were just trying to run a business growing medical cannabis under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act. The act allows primary caregivers to grow up to 12 plants for a patient, with a limit of five patients per caregiver, but Scott says there’s a lot of ambiguity in the law.
“For instance, you may think it’s one plant in a pot,” he said. “but if they pull it up and the root system is separated, suddenly it’s two plants in a pot and you’re in violation of the law.” When their facilities were raided, Metzger and Hall could not produce documentation for all their plants, but Scott argues that the search may have been a violation of their fourth amendment rights.
“If you read the marijuana statute, it’s incredibly unclear,” he said. “Normally if an officer knocks on your door, you have the right to request them to show a warrant. But if they ask if you’re complying with the medical marijuana law, what do you do? There needs to be much more discussion on this legislation.”
Yet, despite this unsure, and potentially hostile, legal environment, cannabis growers continue to grow, and dispensaries continue to soldier on. The legislature and police of Michigan may be cool on medical cannabis, but the voters and patients are very much for it.