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With rules in flux, obtaining medical pot hard for patients

BY SUZANNE JACOBS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 7, 2010

Medical patients in Michigan who have approval from the state to treat their conditions with marijuana can possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana as well as any incidental amount of seeds, stalks and unusable roots from the plant. But the process of getting the drug can often be difficult to navigate, especially with city and state regulations on dispensaries — the most viable means of getting the drug for many patients — constantly changing.

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Act states that a patient can grow up to 12 marijuana plants in an enclosed, locked facility, or if patients choose not to grow their own medicine, they can designate a “primary caregiver” to grow it for them. Caregivers can grow plants for up to five patients as well as themselves if they are also patients. The law does not mention medical marijuana dispensaries — making the legality of marijuana shops unclear.

Mike Meno, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project — the organization responsible for drafting Michigan’s medical marijuana law — said the state didn’t address dispensaries in the law out of fear that state-licensed dispensaries would be in violation of federal law.

Until President Barack Obama took office, Meno said “the federal government was openly hostile to state marijuana laws” and “there was always a hesitancy by state governments to become too involved in medical marijuana laws.”

The next logical step for Michigan would be to pass statewide regulations that make it “very clear” what the law would allow for dispensaries, Meno said.

In the meantime, local municipalities around the state have had to individually decide what to do about dispensaries. Some have outright prohibited them. Others, like Traverse City, have passed ordinances to regulate dispensaries, and some city councils have put temporary moratoriums on them while city officials decide how to proceed.

In August, the Ann Arbor City Council voted in favor of a 120-day moratorium on new dispensaries. Businesses that had already opened — including MedMar Compassionate Healthcare on Packard Road, the Liberty Clinic on Main Street, the Ann Arbor Health Collective on Stadium Boulevard and Green Planet Patient Collective on the corner of Tappan Avenue and Monroe Street — were permitted to remain open.

In defending the moratorium, City Attorney Stephen Postema said the city council needed time to figure out zoning and regulation issues for dispensaries. He warned of the proliferation of too many unregulated businesses, which caused problems in some cities in California.

The Los Angeles Times reported in May that city prosecutors were in the process of notifying 439 dispensaries in Los Angeles that they would need to shut down before June 7 — when the city’s new ordinance to regulate dispensaries would go into effect. In 2007, after 187 dispensaries had already opened in Los Angeles, the city put a moratorium on new dispensaries. The city failed to enforce the ban, and Los Angeles became the “epicenter of the state’s dispensary boom,” according to the L.A. Times. Last month, the L.A. city clerk announced that only one quarter of the 169 dispensaries that were allowed to stay open during the moratorium followed the proper procedures, meaning that the rest of the dispensaries will have to be shut down.

Last week, Ann Arbor's City Planning Commission unanimously voted in favor of a new ordinance to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, AnnArbor.com reported. Some of the rules detailed in the four-page document include no dispensaries located within 1,000 feet of schools, no drive-in dispensaries, no smoking, inhalation or consumption of medical marijuana on premises and no minors allowed on premises without a parent or guardian.

The ordinance also sets rules for caregivers who cultivate in their own homes. "Home occupations" cannot conduct more than 10 business-related vehicle trips — five roundtrips — per day, and no medicine transfers are permitted in home occupations except to residents of the dwelling.

The ordinance, which the Planning Commission has been working on for the past two months, will now go before City Council.

Mike McLeod, one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Patient Collective (A2M2PC) — which acts as a source of information about medical marijuana — said the “logical choice” is for patients to grow plants for themselves, but for the majority of people that simply won’t work. Growing marijuana is difficult, he said, because it takes space, money and patience. He added that marijuana’s illegality under federal law and the stigma associated with growing the drug also serve as major deterrents for some patients.

Having a caregiver is not always a successful alternative either, McLeod said.

“(The caregiver system) is a good concept, but in reality, there are a lot of problems with it. The reason being people are people,” he said. “Many of them I’m sure are well-intended … but most of them aren’t that successful at it.”

Growing the plants takes a minimum of three months, according to McLeod. Sometimes the crop dies, and sometimes the caregiver distributes the marijuana too quickly — leaving the patient without medicine until the next crop is ready. McLeod said some patients even have trouble just getting in touch with their caregivers because they don’t respond to calls.

Dennis Hayes, another founder of the A2M2PC and a lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana legislation, said if a large group of patients — like cancer patients — started widely using marijuana, it would place too large of a burden on the current patient-caregiver system. A significant increase in the number of patients would create a need for some kind of mass production of marijuana, he said.

That need was already apparent at the July meeting of the A2M2PC, which does not allow the transfer of medicine at its meetings. The question on everyone’s mind at the meeting was whether there are dispensaries in town.

McLeod said the businesses that have opened in Ann Arbor are better described as “collectives” rather than “dispensaries.” He explained that people are members of collectives, and they are places where patients and caregivers can go to share resources. These collectives are a product of the “natural market” that has developed because of patients wanting to sample different strains of marijuana — something that is difficult to do with a single caregiver, McLeod said.

Several Ann Arbor collectives have a waiting area for the patients where they check in and verify that they are registered patients and members of the collective. When it’s their turn, they are taken to a separate room to purchase their medicine from the “bud tender” — the person in charge of selling the various products offered at each collective.

McLeod estimated that 24 collectives currently exist in Ann Arbor, but most of them are private and invitation-only. Those that function in secret, he said, choose to do so because of the questionable legality of their existence.

When city council members voted on the moratorium in August, they asked Ann Arbor Police Chief Barnett Jones if there had been any issues with existing collectives. At the time, Jones said the police had received no complaints.

Since then, there has been one reported robbery at a local collective. On Sept. 30, at least three people carrying guns stole money and marijuana from the Liberty Clinic on Main Street after binding the employees with duct tape, according AnnArbor.com. Three men were charged in the robbery earlier this month.


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