Ann Arbor drug felon facing obstacles to new life as medical marijuana entrepreneur
Fourteen years after being busted for growing seven marijuana plants in his backyard, in the tiny city of Manistique in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, T.J. Rice remains haunted by his past.
He's legally considered a convicted drug felon, a label he says has contributed to his struggles with unemployment and homelessness.
"I had to lie on every job application I ever had afterwards," said Rice, a former insurance salesman who was living out of the Delonis Center as recently as two years ago.
Rice, now 54, appears to be finding his niche.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
He calls it the Ann Arbor Patient-to-Patient Compassion Club, or A2P2C2. Providing cannabis-based medicine in various forms to those who qualify for it is his business.
Rice, a patient himself, said he doesn't grow marijuana anymore, but rather buys from suppliers around Michigan. Inside his small shop, he sells everything from traditional pot products to cannabis-based energy drinks, caramels and even a roll-on pain reliever gel called "icy pot."
"These are pot shots," he said on a recent afternoon, grabbing a two-ounce bottle from his shelf. "These are vitamin drinks with cannabis right in them. They're pre-mixed with about a half a gram. That's what you're seeing — a lot of entrepreneurship."
But can a convicted drug felon run a marijuana dispensary?
That's a legal question that has Ann Arbor officials — including the city attorney's office — scratching their heads. It's an issue City Council members will have to decide in the coming weeks as part of a new ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.
Rice has Mayor John Hieftje on his side.
"If someone was convicted back in 1997 for growing a few marijuana plants, I see no reason why that should preclude him from participating in what's now a growing business area today many years later," Hieftje said.
State of conflict
Rice, like many others in the marijuana business, finds himself mired in a legal quagmire of conflicting laws. Marijuana, on the whole, remains an illegal drug under federal law. In Michigan, however, using marijuana for medicinal purposes was legalized by voters in 2008.
Even before that, Ann Arbor voters approved amendments to the city charter in 2004 to allow the use of medical pot — so long as someone has a doctor's note for it.
Until now, Rice has chosen to operate under the rules of the city charter. A cancer survivor with a degenerative spine who lives on Social Security disability, he has more than one doctor's note recommending pot. But he isn't registered with the state.
The state act says drug felons (though not other felons) are prohibited from being caregivers — a term defined as anyone who has agreed to assist with a patient's medical use of marijuana. Whether that extends to dispensary owners is unclear because the state act says nothing about dispensaries — which is why cities are now crafting their own rules.
City Attorney Stephen Postema says it'll be up to the City Council to decide whether to allow certain felons, like those with marijuana convictions, to run dispensaries in Ann Arbor.
"The council's looking at that issue," he said. "There's a catch-22 in that a lot of the advocates who are talking about the dispensaries believe that the operation of dispensaries will take place by patients and caregivers, so therefore it seems the state law would have to be reviewed. Again, that's something that the council has not yet figured out."
Rice doesn't consider himself a caregiver, so he hasn't gone through the state's registry process to become one. And he's only now seeking a registry card to officially become a patient recognized by the Michigan Department of Community Health.
So far, Rice's approach to solely follow the city charter hasn't been challenged in court.
And whether he can continue being a dispensary owner for much longer depends on the City Council. Under the new city ordinance working its way to the City Council for approval, anyone who has been convicted of "any felony" can't obtain a license to run a dispensary.
"If it's a marijuana crime, something maybe you're good at, you can't do it," Rice said. "I think it should read that any violent crime felons should not be allowed to run a dispensary, but those with marijuana convictions should be exempted."
Hieftje said he's open to changing the wording in the spirit of giving a second chance to people like Rice who have already paid their debt to society.
"I think society continues to punish people who have committed a crime even after they do their sentence," Hieftje said. "Here they are 10 or 15 years later, and it's still hard for them to get a job. So that is an issue, and I'm willing to take a look at it."
A second bust
Since opening his business last February, Rice has had one run-in with the law — an incident that remains somewhat hazy.
Ann Arbor police confirmed a story Rice told AnnArbor.com about being "raided" by city police last March. Rice escaped mostly unscathed, legally speaking.
Police Chief Barnett Jones backs away from using the term "raid" to describe what happened. He said police received a 911 call about a strong smell of marijuana coming from Rice's office, which isn't marked as a dispensary, and officers went to knock on his door.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Jones said the officers were allowed inside and discovered about 17 to 19 marijuana plants. He said they seized the plants as evidence after Rice was unable to produce paperwork indicating he could legally operate a dispensary.
Rice maintains a doctor's note should have been enough.
According to Jones, the case was turned over to the Washtenaw County Prosector's Office last year. But there seems to be no record of the case there now.
Steve Hiller, deputy chief assistant prosecutor, ran a search for Rice's case last week and found no record. Even if it didn't move forward, it still should be logged, he acknowledged.
"I don't see that anything has been filed," Hiller said. "There is nothing on our internal computer."
Jones agreed it's odd that Rice was busted almost a year ago and hasn't heard back from authorities since then. Rice still has hard feelings about what happened, especially since his property was seized and he wasn't charged with a crime.
"They left here with about $9,000 worth of medicine. They took my computer. I had 55 patients who were scared to death — they're worried about records," he said. "They put me out of business for six months, literally."
Jones said it's been the approach of the Ann Arbor Police Department to leave medical marijuana dispensaries alone.
"I can tell you unequivocally, the city police have not had any raids of any marijuana dispensaries," he said, noting he didn't consider what happened last March a dispensary raid. "If we have known it was a marijuana dispensary, we have not raided any. That's kind of why we wanted to have some of these places registered so we can know they're in existence."
Rice said the police officers who came to his office seemed surprised when he showed them a copy of the city charter amendment, which states: "No Ann Arbor police officer, or his or her agent, shall complain and the city attorney shall not refer for prosecution any complaint, of the possession, control, use, giving away, sale or cultivation of marijuana or cannabis upon proof that the defendant is recommended by a physician, practitioner or other qualified health professional to use or provide the marijuana or cannabis for medical treatment."
Rice stands behind that law.
"We do have a law and that's why they never pressed charges. If I was illegal, they'd have pressed charges," he said. "I was open for business the next morning. They never came back."
Rice said he's not sure what his future is as a dispensary owner in Ann Arbor, but he knows what's on his agenda for the next two years.
He'll be working on a statewide ballot initiative leading up to November 2012 to fully legalize marijuana in Michigan. He also is raising money to bring back Rainbow Farm, a pro-marijuana campground in Cass County that was home to two annual festivals — HempAid and Roach Roast — until its demise following a deadly police standoff on Sept. 3, 2001.
Rice also is holding out hope that the Ann Arbor City Council will be accommodating to the inevitable rise of the medical marijuana industry.
Hieftje sees dispensaries that follow the rules as a positive addition to Ann Arbor. On top of money the city may collect from licensing fees, he said there's a general economic upside.
"Already we're seeing the benefits in some storefronts that would have been vacant now being occupied," he said. "The people in Michigan have decided this is a direction we should be going in, and they decided this overwhelmingly, especially in Ann Arbor."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529.