Fired up: Legality of medical marijuana dispensaries an issue of debate in Michigan
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
On Sept. 30, three armed gunmen broke into the Liberty Clinic dispensary on Main Street in Ann Arbor, robbing the employees and customers inside, police say.
Both instances involved marijuana, dispensaries, violence and guns. And both ended with criminal charges — in one case against three men accused of robbing a clinic, and in the other, against the owner of a clinic.
Marijuana dispensary owners in Michigan appear to be under fire from all sides.
From criminal concerns to regulations, municipalities and law enforcement officials are trying to figure out what to do with a phenomenon that was never part of the state law passed in 2008: dispensaries.
The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act addresses several aspects of the burgeoning business:
â€¢ Qualified patients and caregivers can possess up to 12 plants and/or 2.5 ounces of harvested material, with the plants maintained in a locked and enclosed facility.
â€¢ Patients can designate a caregiver to grow their plants, and each caregiver can have up to five patients.
But absent from the law is any language addressing dispensaries, which have popped up all over the state since the law went into effect in April 2009. At least 12 or 13 clinics are operating in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area.
Calling themselves cooperatives, health collectives or compassion centers, dispensaries are places where patients with qualifying medical conditions — like cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain and other afflictions listed in the state act — can purchase medical marijuana.
A controlled substance — which marijuana is considered under federal law — can’t technically be sold by caregivers, the state law says. That’s why dispensaries are set up as non-profits or cooperatives that take “donations” for services in exchange for product. Owners say that set-up also follows the law’s “spirit of compassion.”
Around the country, 15 states and the District of Columbia allow for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Seven specifically allow dispensaries.
Like most states where medical marijuana is legal, Michigan requires patients to register. That may provide protection from arrest for possessing some marijuana for personal medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a non-partisan organization that tracks states’ legislative trends. With a physician’s recommendation, the proper paperwork and a fee of $100 — $25 for certain low-income individuals -- a prospective patient gets the right to use marijuana for medicinal purposes and a state registry ID card.
Around Ann Arbor, some dispensaries employ doctors who provide recommendations for those who want to become medical marijuana patients. Other medical marijuana hopefuls receive a recommendation from a family doctor, while some physicians refuse to sign off on medical marijuana.
In Michigan, the office administering the law finds itself under a crushing “tidal wave of paperwork” from individuals trying to register to receive an ID card, said Celeste Clarkson, manager of the registry program. Her office receives between 150 and 850 applications a day, she said. The card expires after one year, compounding the workload.
But the federal government sees no difference between “medical marihuana,” as it’s called under Michigan law, and the street drug.
Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Substances Act, placing it in the same category as methamphetamine, heroin, LSD and Mescalin. Schedule I substances are illegal, considered to have a high potential for dependency and have no accepted medical use. Comparatively, cocaine is classified as a schedule II substance “because there are legitimate medical uses in some surgical procedures,” said Rich Isaacson, a special agent for the Detroit division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
“The DEA doesn’t use its resources to target the people who are following state law,” Isaacson said.
In October 2009, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder sent a memo to federal prosecutors discouraging them from prosecuting those who distribute marijuana for medical purposes in accordance with state law.
Amid that contradiction between federal and Michigan law — and confusion in the state law -- different counties have approached the issue differently.
To Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, it’s crystal clear.
“In Michigan, the act does not authorize dispensaries or cooperatives,” Cooper wrote in a Detroit Free Press editorial. “We constantly read about townships and cities agonizing over how to zone medical marihuana dispensaries. The answer is simple. No dispensaries are allowed under Michigan law and they are clearly prohibited under federal law.”
Cooper said by e-mail that numerous individuals use the MMMA as a shield for criminal activities, something voters didn’t anticipate when they approved the new law by 63 percent of the vote.
She wouldn’t discuss specifics or say how many raids have been conducted or how many marijuana clinics have been shut down in Oakland County. “We do not keep track on the basis of defenses (spurious or otherwise),” she said.
But a few of those raided are talking.
Teichman, whose home was raided in August, works as a product engineer for an automaker, and he and his wife, Candace, own a diner called Everybody’s CafÃ© in Waterford Township.
They started opening the cafÃ© doors after hours to medical marijuana cardholders interested in talking shop and trading product in February, at members-only gatherings commonly referred to as compassion clubs. At the meetings, registered medical marijuana users also smoked pot at the restaurant. In June, the Teichmans opened a new business, a medical marijuana dispensary called Herbal Remedies.
Herbal Remedies lasted 33 days before a narcotics squad raided it, along with Teichman’s restaurant and home. Police took cash, computers, passports, guns and four years of tax records for his restaurant. Teichman said Tuesday he hasn’t gotten any of it back. He said the six weapons taken were registered -- he hunts with his two sons and is a concealed pistol permit holder.
According to the Oakland Press, the Teichmans were among 20 individuals busted Aug. 25 for providing pot. Now, the couple faces felony charges in Oakland County court related to the delivery and manufacturing of marijuana, Bill Teichman said. In court, the Teichmans’ attorney said undercover cops used fake medical marijuana ID cards to purchase marijuana and orchestrate the bust. The attorney called that move as “entrapment.”
The Midwest Cultivator, a one-year-old, Ypsilanti-based medical marijuana trade publication, has undertaken a series on drug raids.
Charmie Gholson, co-owner and editor of the pro-pot publication, admits criminal activity is likely connected to some dispensaries.
“We’re emerging from the black market,” she said. “There are people coming in from out of state who want to get in on this gold rush, and there are people who are going to maintain that criminal element of their life.”
But she points out some of those being raided are everyday people without criminal ambitions who thought they were following the law.
In Washtenaw County, no medical marijuana clinic raids have occurred, authorities said. And this area has long had a more lax attitude when it comes to pot smoking.
Ann Arbor is home to the yearly Hash Bash and decriminalized marijuana long ago -- making possession of a small amount of pot a $5 civil infraction ticket (now $25). Ann Arbor approved its own medical marijuana laws four years ahead of the rest of the state.
Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie said he didn’t vote to legalize medical marijuana and doesn’t think dispensaries are legally allowed.
Mackie said he’s concerned about people using marijuana and driving, an offense that carries a penalty of 93 days in jail and/or fines between $100 and $500 and/or 360 hours of community service on a first offense. The status as a medical marijuana cardholder doesn’t legalize driving while under the influence of marijuana.
Owners and proponents of dispensaries say it’s about the medicine and compassion for the suffering -- not about making money.
Magdalena Cox, co-owner of a dispensary called the Green Bee Collective at 401 S. Maple Road, said her place isn’t a “pot shop.”
“We’re there to help the sick so they don’t have to go on the street corner,” she said.
The Liberty Clinic is located in rented office space at 206 S. Main Street, where the odor of marijuana was present on a recent day. Loud music blared, and a crowd of people waited in chairs and on their feet for their chance to purchase marijuana from a back room. They cheered when a patron emerged and announced he had won the week’s raffle and a free eighth of an ounce of weed.
Liberty Clinic is owned by James Chaney, who goes by Chainsaw and has been convicted of drug trafficking in Ohio, records show. He did not return calls from AnnArbor.com.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
OM business partners Keith Lambert and Christian Davis founded the dispensary.
They want OM to be “a dispensary you could send your grandma to,” Davis said.
“We want to be something Ann Arbor would be proud of,” Lambert added. “A good reflection of the city.”
Long-time medical marijuana activist Chuck Ream said local supporters like himself feel relatively safe in Washtenaw County in their efforts to provide medicine to sick people. Ream is a partner in MedMAR Pharmaceuticals Inc., a dispensary at 1818 Packard in Ann Arbor.
“Outside of Washtenaw County, people are being destroyed for trying to help people who are sick,” he said.
Ream said MedMAR’s business partners poured $100,000 into improving a disintegrating, vacant building. He declined to name the business partners, but said they’re involved in the construction and automotive industries.
At MedMAR, an office space with a soothing vibe and comfortable beige couches, the marijuana is kept locked up, behind a wall outfitted with two-way mirrors. At dispensaries, back rooms like MedMAR’s are only accessible to those who hold state-issued cards.
Those involved with dispensaries say they’re concerned about crime and take measures to prevent it.
“I want a high-quality industry where people are in it for the patients,” Ream said. “Any one stupid person can destroy it for all of us.”
Lambert of OM said safety is a top priority.
“We keep our product in safes and in locked rooms,” he said. “We want it to be safe.”
Dispensary partners say the clinics create job growth in a stagnant economy.
3rd Coast Compassion Center in Ypsilanti, which opened Jan. 1, considers itself to be the first public dispensary in the state of Michigan, partner Darrell Stavros said.
The clinic at 19 N. Hamilton St. in downtown Ypsilanti has its own online TV station and employs 11 people, Stavros said. He said neighboring businesses have been supportive of his efforts.
Abe Asani has owned 24-hour diner Abe’s Coney Island for 25 years. It’s down the street from 3rd Coast.
Because of 3rd Coast, more people are coming to Ypsilanti, he said.
“In this economy, every little thing helps. Not just me, everybody in the area. It helps business,” he said.
3rd Coast partner Jamie Lowell said the building — it has in its various incarnations been a funeral home and a mortgage company — was vacant for several years before the clinic moved in. The 7,000-square foot space is also home to The Midwest Cultivator and Puff Danny’s Glass Boutique, which bills itself as a “high-quality head shop” with Michigan blown glass.
Future of dispensaries
After a number of dispensaries moved in locally, municipalities took swift action to decide if — and how — to regulate them.
“We’ve tried to provide reasonable regulations for businesses that are going to operate as dispensaries, and those include certain safety requirements and limitations of total licenses,” Ann Arbor city attorney Stephen Postema said.
Among the actions by cities, townships and villages:
â€¢ The Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees passed a zoning ordinance addressing dispensaries in May 2010, without a moratorium, said Mike Radzik, director of the township’s office of community standards. Its zoning ordinances says dispensaries and nurseries have to be at least 1,000 feet apart and cannot be within 1,000 feet of a public library, school or college, place of worship, residential district, or child care organization. Marijuana can’t be consumed at a dispensary or a nursery.
â€¢ The Ypsilanti City Council approved a three-month moratorium in July on new licenses for medical marijuana businesses, but approved a zoning ordinance Wednesday. It now allows dispensaries in three city business districts. The dispensaries cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school, and marijuana can’t be grown or consumed on the premises. The city will allow for grow facilities, places where multiple caregivers can grow their plants under one roof, in certain industrial districts. Grow facilities and dispensaries must be at least 500 feet apart. A licensing ordinance that addresses dispensaries is expected to come before the council in January, city planner Teresa Gillotti said.
â€¢ The Ann Arbor City Council instituted 60-day moratorium in November while it simultaneously crafts zoning and licensing regulations. The latest ordinance discussed Monday would cap the total number of dispensaries at 15 and ban those convicted of a misdemeanor involving any controlled substance or any felony from operating them. The city would charge a to-be-determined fee for an annual license and require dispensary partners to list all affiliated business managers and physicians.
â€¢ Saline banned them outright, while Chelsea officials are expected to vote to ban dispensaries later this month.
Individual opinions about dispensaries vary.
Ben Ogren, a 20-year-old Washtenaw Community College student, said he favors dispensaries. He is a qualified patient with sinus problems, he said.
Medical marijuana cards are popular among college students, according to Ogren.
“Pretty much everyone is doing the whole dispensary thing,” he said.
Faith Hopp, a Wayne State University professor who lives in Pittsfield Township, voted in favor of the law in 2008. She doesn’t use medical marijuana, but has friends who do. Dispensaries haven’t been on her radar, she said.
“I thought it was good to find a way to make it legal and hopefully make it safe,“ she said. “I still support the idea behind the law.”
The last thing people who are sick should worry about is the legality of medicine that makes them feel better, she said. Hopp works with hospice centers in Michigan, researching social work issues related to end-of-life care.
“But it sounds like it’s being used for recreational use,” she continued. “The people who voted for the law didn’t support recreational use -- the voters voted for medicinal use.”
Dale Franz, 73, has purchased marijuana from the Liberty Clinic.
“It has an effect that can be positive in most circumstances for people’s wise use, careful use,” said Franz, a former journalist who uses a vaporizer to take medical marijuana. Franz has severe sciatic nerve pain, he said, and marijuana helps him sleep and manage his pain without opiate-based painkillers like Vicodin.
“We allow people to make their own decision about whether they are going to drive if they have a drink of alcohol, but we have inconsistent rules about other kinds of things that should also be a matter of maturity and good behavior,” Franz said.
Former Ann Arbor resident Andy Goodrich now lives in San Jose, where dispensaries have been around for several years. California was the first to legalize marijuana for medical use in the Compassionate Use Act of 1996.
Goodrich said the dispensaries in San Jose don’t concern him. He recently voted in favor of Proposition 19, the latest effort by a state to make marijuana legal.
“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said.
Ann Arbor resident Daniel Berland, a chronic pain doctor and an anesthesiology professor at the University of Michigan, called medical marijuana “a joke.”
“It’s just legalized drug dealing,” he said. “And if that’s what we want to do, then what we should do is just legalize it.”
Berland spends his life traveling around trying to convince doctors most medicines should be withdrawn because he believes medications, painkillers in particular, mostly harm people. That includes narcotics frequently decried by the medical marijuana enthusiasts, like morphine and Vicodin.
“The vast majority of people dancing their way into the dispensaries are potheads who want pot,” he said. “The whole process, for the entire state, should be started over. There’s nothing in the law about dispensaries. Nothing.”
Juliana Keeping is a health and environment reporter for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2528.