Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Michigan Medical Marijuana News
A 'work in progress'
By DAVID WARFIELD - H-P Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, September 13, 2009 1:09 PM EDT
It has been nearly a year since Michigan voters approved a loosely
regulated system legalizing medical marijuana.
In a quiet and mostly out-of-the-way fashion, the program has taken root
across the state. Patients and caregivers have formed local "compassion
clubs" to educate themselves on the details of the law, share
cultivation techniques and generally support one another.
Medical marijuana is still an underground product - cultivated in
so-called grow rooms, under lock and key and exchanged in the small
Michigan Department of Community Health registration records show that
83 people in Berrien County have registered as patients or caregivers.
Van Buren County has 49 MDCH card-holders, and Cass County has 29.
Michigan's program is still young. And many of the rules - for growers,
patients, police, prosecutors and local governments - are still hazy,
especially because they may conflict with federal law.
One man in Niles is finding out the hard way.
Caught in the gap between state and federal law, he could be evicted
from subsidized housing for growing and using medical marijuana.
Steve Allain has been working within the state law. He has a MDCH card
that entitles him to grow up to 12 plants inside his home.
Smoking marijuana helps him live with the pain of Crohn's disease and
hepatitis C. And it's a treatment he can afford, he told The
A gastroenterologist put him on an experimental drug regimen, Allain
said, but he couldn't afford the $10,000-a-year treatment.
Smoking marijuana proved to be a relief. He kept some plants at first
but later turned them over to a friend, who is a registered caregiver,
to grow for him.
Though the plants are gone, Allain still smokes in his house, which is
the only place he can comply with the law.
The 53-year-old former truck driver continues to get by on disability
benefits. He said the Social Security Administration is aware of his
marijuana use but has not stated any objections.
But a different federal agency - the Department of Housing and Urban
Development - does mind.
No matter what Michigan's law says about medical marijuana, it is still
against federal law. Allain lives in HUD housing, and HUD has a problem
with his marijuana use. The Niles Housing Commission wrote Allain an
eviction notice in June. Mary Ann Bush, the Niles Housing Commission
executive director, recently told The Herald-Palladium federal
regulations require a "zero-tolerance" policy toward illegal drug use.
Allain stayed, and the Housing Commission filed suit in Berrien County
The suit was dismissed, but "without prejudice," which means it could be
refiled, and it was last week.
Appealing to the Housing Commission, then hiring a lawyer to keep his
house while battling his physical ailments at the same time has become
an exhausting ordeal, Allain said.
"My stress levels are obviously off the charts. ... Financially, I'm
just slammed," he said.
Medical marijuana advocates in Michigan are pushing to liberalize the
program. Members of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association want
growers to be able to pool their resources and form nonprofit
collectives, which would take the drug out of the basements into more
public commercial spaces.
Meanwhile, some municipalities want to regulate where growers can set up
- to keep California-style commercial "pot shops" from springing up in
their neighborhoods and to preempt parts of the law that are open to
Keeping it legal
From a police perspective, the law has yet to be much of an issue in
"We haven't had many problems," said Berrien County Sheriff Paul Bailey.
An MDCH-registered patient can grow up to 12 plants to harvest marijuana
for personal use. Because caregivers can supply for up to five patients,
some caregivers can grow up to 60 plants.
When the Medical Marijuana Act went before voters in a referendum last
November, opponents argued that this system would give growers a legal
smokescreen for illegal operations - that 12 plants per patient would
allow caregivers to grow a huge amount of marijuana, most of which could
be sold on the black market.
That scenario does not seem to be playing out locally.
In the short time the program has been in effect, Berrien County
Sheriff's Department Narcotics Unit officers have not found illegal
growers trying to use what prosecutors have called the "medical
Police continue to arrest people for selling marijuana and other drugs,
Bailey said, but apparently none of those marijuana growers have been
"If there are caregivers out there, we don't know where they're at,"
He said he doesn't know of any medical marijuana users in Berrien County
being arrested for possession.
Bailey said his officers have been trained extensively about what to do
on road patrol with respect to possession.
Under the law, patients can carry up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.
"If we find less than 2.5 ounces, we ask for the card," Bailey said. "If
they don't have the card, they're arrested."
If a person is carrying more than 2.5 ounces, he noted, it does not
matter if the person has a card, because it is still breaking the law.
"We've still been making a lot of arrests, because we're not seeing the
medical cards," Bailey said.
Scot Woods, director of the Berrien County Compassion Club, which meets
in Coloma, said members of his group have met with the sheriff several
times and have "a good relationship" with the department.
"Their stance and ours is, stay within the law and you're fine ... no
worries," Woods said.
Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter said local police in Berrien County
are beginning to see MDCH cards in traffic stops, and prosecuting
attorneys have dealt with a few cases where medical marijuana is
In July, police arrested one man for a variety of drug charges after
they found a methamphetamine laboratory in his house in Buchanan. A tip
that the man was growing marijuana outdoors led police to search his
house. It turned out that the was a registered medical marijuana user.
The man had drug convictions in three states, and it was obvious he was
a drug user, according to the police report. But he had a recommendation
for medical marijuana from a Niles doctor and a valid card from the
Because the system depends on doctor recommendations, preventing cases
like that depends on the prudence and responsibility of doctors, Cotter
"It depends on the legitimacy and appropriateness of their
recommendations, " Cotter said.
A need for collectives?
Brad Forrester, spokesman for the Michigan Medical Marijuana
Association, talked by telephone about efforts around the state by
growers to start nonprofit collectives. Forrester said collectives could
provide a better quality and a more stable supply of marijuana for
patients, ensure easier access and protect caregivers.
Well-intentioned caregivers who end up growing a greater supply than
needed would have a safe place to dump any surpluses.
But the primary objective is "to give patient more options," Forrester
"The (one-caregiver- per-patient) option is not going to work well for
all people," he said.
Woods also said collectives would be better for patients.
A patient who grows his or her own marijuana could go there in a pinch
in the event of a "grow failure" in the patient's own supply.
That would be "a lot better than going to the streets" to buy the drug,
The law has a provision allowing caregivers to charge patients for the
costs associated with growing - which introduces a commercial element.
Collectives could be a source of tax revenue for local governments,
Medical marijuana proliferation could spin off a whole industry with
related businesses, said Greg Francisco, executive director of the
Michigan Medical Marijuana Association.
But the law is silent about pooling operations. If multiple caregivers
are contributing to a common pool and the collective is selling to
patients, Forrester admitted it would likely violate the
five-patients- per-caregiver limit.
Still, Forrester said he is working with growers in Detroit who are
pushing for a local ordinance to allow just that kind of pooling
"The next step is for a few brave souls to step forward and get an
ordinance passed in a receptive community, form the collective and test
the waters," Forrester wrote in an Internet article on the subject of
"We have to take an incrementalist approach," he told The
Legal battles are to be expected, he said, and patients and caregivers
will get arrested as they push the boundaries of what is legal.
"I expect to be arrested," he said.
"That's part of how the change happens. There's gotta be a body count."
A few municipalities are studying how to minimize the local impact of
medical marijuana through zoning.
The St. Joseph Township Board formed a committee, but no new ordinance
is in the works for now, Township Supervisor Roger Seely said.
"We're still doing homework, trying to gather more information about the
law," Seely said. "It's a new thing they put on the books and it's
something we're trying not be blind-sided by. We're watching to see what
everyone else is doing."
Scott Dienes, a lawyer who represents local governments including Lake
Township, Coloma Township and others, said many municipalities want to
add their own guidelines to control where medical marijuana is grown and
"I think the concern is we don't want growing operations just anywhere
in the community. We sure don't want them in basements of houses near a
school or church," Dienes said.
Relatively few cities have passed ordinances so far, though Niles is
one. The Niles City Council passed the ordinance in May, and it took
effect in June.
It prohibits growing within 1,000 feet of a drug-free school zone.
It says marijuana cannot be grown "in connection with or at a location
at which any other commodity, product or service is also available."
It prohibits multiple caregivers from growing in the same location.
Those and other sections of the ordinance would make it hard for growers
to form collectives.
But medical marijuana advocates have pointed out that the Michigan Right
to Farm Act may protect marijuana growers from local ordinances.
The act exempts farmers from certain zoning regulations.
Dienes called the Right to Farm Act an "obvious sticking point" that
could block local governments from adding levels of regulation not
authorized in the tightly written Michigan Medical Marijuana Act.
Dienes said he has sent a letter to Attorney General Mike Cox, through
Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, asking for an interpretation on whether
the Right to Farm Act supersedes local regulation over medical marijuana
The Michigan Medical Marijuana Act contains a carefully crafted system
of protections for growers and users. It was drafted by lawyers working
at and with the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based
pro-marijuana advocacy organization.
Regulations the MDCH wrote for the medical marijuana program in the two
months after Proposal 1 passed were reversed after medical marijuana
advocates, including the lead drafter or Proposal 1, charged that the
additions violated the intent of the law.
Medical marijuana advocates locally and at the state level said they
have been communicating with state lawmakers about how to expand access
to medical marijuana.
"We've been to Lansing meeting with several senators and representatives
working on this co-op thing," Woods said.
"This is a work in progress."
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