Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MMJ in Detroit could spur new industry

Helping patients get approved may be lucrative

Christina Rogers / The Detroit News

Southfield -- A new medical clinic here specializes in helping patients qualify with the state to treat their health problems with medical marijuana.

The nonprofit The Hemp and Cannabis Foundation opened the clinic, its first in Michigan, in December. That's the same month a voter-approved law went into effect legalizing medical marijuana to ease the pain of certain illnesses specified by the state, such as cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer's disease and HIV/AIDS.

State regulators will begin accepting applications on Saturday from patients who want state authorization to acquire, grow, transport or possess marijuana for therapeutic use.

"If a patient has a qualifying condition, then our doctors will help them get a permit," said chief executive Paul Stanford, adding the clinic pre-screens patients to ensure they've already been diagnosed with an illness approved for treatment with medical marijuana. The clinic doesn't sell or dispense marijuana, because that's against the law.

The Portland, Ore.-based organization is taking roots in what could soon become a budding niche industry in Michigan.

"You're looking at a $10 million annual industry that physicians aren't going to turn their backs on for too long," said Brad Forrester, a communications director for the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, which began organizing last year and is applying for nonprofit status with the state.

Stanford said he sees the clinic's role as simple: to provide patients with access to doctors willing to write the state-required certifications qualifying them for a medical marijuana permit card.

Despite the drug's legalization in more than a dozen states for medicinal use, many doctors won't recommend it -- either because they fear legal reprisal or don't see it as the best therapeutic option.
New revenue for Michigan

The clinic, the first of its kind in Michigan, charges about $200 for patients looking to get a year-long medical marijuana permit. Multiply that by the estimated 50,000 patients that supporters say the law will help, and medical professionals are looking at a significant new revenue stream.

"That's a nice chunk of change," Forrester said.

For the THCF clinic, the new law is already paying off. It has logged more than 380 patient visits since its opening in temporary space on the 19th floor of a Southfield office tower.

On a recent day, patients were seated in a boardroom-style conference room, where the foundation's staffers educated them about medicinal marijuana, how it can be taken -- by smoking or ingestion -- and about its potential hazards. Attendees, for instance, were advised not to operate a motor vehicle after using the drug.

For patients like Dave Rice, a 30-year-old Brighton resident who suffers from arthritis pain brought on by a severe knee injury, the clinic is providing a more natural alternative to narcotic pain-relievers to soothe his symptoms.

"This might be something that can relieve my pain and help," Rice said, noting he was interested in taking the marijuana in pill form, rather than smoking it -- an option Stanford said many patients choose to avoid a cannabis-induced high.

The foundation also expects to see competition arise in Michigan from other medical clinics or doctors' offices setting up shop to meet the growing demand for medical permits. That's been the case in other states.

While the foundation has not set daily hours here -- only opening a couple days a month -- Stanford said he hopes to have a permanent medical center by May and is hiring staff, including a doctor. Right now, the foundation is using a doctor from its Denver location.

Michigan could see other industry outgrowth, such as stores selling pot-growing equipment.
Use will be well-regulated

The new law could seed another line of business: a caregiver, a person designated to help the ill cultivate or obtain medical marijuana, Forrester said.

"Caregivers are going to be an industry here in Michigan, as well," he said, noting the association's Web site,, will make space available to caregivers who want to advertise their services.

Under the new law, caregivers also must register with the state, be older than 21 and have no felony drug convictions. Caregivers can ask patients to compensate them for the costs of their service -- such as money spent on growing equipment or buying seeds -- but can't legally sell the product.

The Michigan Department of Community Health will closely regulate doctors and medical clinics that certify patients for clinical cannabis use, watching for abuse, said Melanie Brim, a department director. The department will monitor doctors who appear to churn out high volumes of prescriptions, checking to ensure they're not certifying patients without an in-person exam and a careful look at their medical records, Brim said.

The Michigan State Medical Society, which opposed the original ballot initiative, doesn't have an official position on clinics specializing in medical marijuana, but shares some of the health department's concerns, said David Fox, a medical society spokesman.

Fox said the society advocates communication between specialty doctors and primary care physicians to safeguard against possible drug interactions and to ensure the medical care isn't fragmented.

"You'd want to have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship, including the transfer of medical records," Fox added.

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