Medical marijuana supporters mourn the loss of dispensaries in Ann Arbor
Earlier this year, city officials estimated as many as 18 dispensaries were operating in Ann Arbor, serving thousands of patients. But that's changed in the last two weeks.
"To my knowledge, all of them are shut down," said City Attorney Stephen Postema, adding the only exception might be People's Choice Alternative Medicine on Main Street.
But even that one isn't expected to be in business long.
"We will be moving to close them down," Postema said. "And the reason being, they are in an improperly zoned area and cannot operate there. The owner there is currently moving to evict them, I understand, this week. So we're letting that eviction process go forward."
Several medical marijuana activists — including patients and dispensary owners — voiced their concerns before the Ann Arbor City Council Tuesday night. They argued thousands of sick people are going without their medicine now that dispensaries are closed.
Mark Passerini, a University of Michigan graduate and co-founder of the OM of Medicine dispensary on Main Street, told council members he shut his doors two weeks ago after the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling came down and two local dispensaries were raided.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
"There are over 100,000 patients around the state hoping that this historically progressive and forward-thinking city of Ann Arbor will continue with the licensing process you've worked so hard to craft," Passerini said, noting 74 percent of Ann Arbor voters approved medical marijuana for qualifying patients. "Please don't take any steps backwards."
Before the events of the last two weeks, the City Council recently approved licensing and zoning ordinances regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. The city was expected to dole out licenses allowing up to 20 dispensaries in the city.
That's looking unlikely now, though.
"The contemplated licensing ordinance only addressed dispensaries that were fully compliant with state law," Postema said. "The dispensaries that are in Ann Arbor are not in compliance with state law and that's why they've closed."
Postema clarified that most of the dispensaries shut down on their own, probably on the advice of their attorneys.
"I know the county prosecutor issued a statement last week warning folks," he added. "Perhaps that had a lot to do with it."
Council members debated Tuesday night whether a new Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, set up to advise the City Council on medical marijuana policy, is even needed now that dispensaries are deemed illegal. But the council ultimately decided by a 10-0 vote to appoint four members, including Council Member Sabra Briere, to the board.
Council Member Mike Anglin, D-5th Ward, was absent.
Dori Edwards, owner of the Tree City Health Collective, said she moved to Ann Arbor several years ago for its liberal ideals. She said she's sad to say she had to close the doors of her dispensary two weeks ago after hearing others were being raided.
"I stood outside the door and I turned away patients — patients coming up in wheelchairs and walkers," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes. It was very, very difficult, because these patients didn't know where to go."
She said one patient even commented, "I guess I'm going to have to drive to Detroit and get it on the corner where I used to get it."
Ann Arbor resident Koos Eisenberg, a patient at OM of Medicine before it closed, told council members she's not interested in growing marijuana on her own, she's not interested in buying it on the street, and she prefers going to a dispensary over a caregiver.
"In my experience in Ann Arbor dispensaries, I have learned about different medical marijuana strains that are appropriate for my medical needs. I have learned about options such as vaporizing, which is safer for my lungs," she said, adding her experience with a caregiver hasn't gone as smoothly and doesn't feel as safe.
"Often my caregiver is out of town," she said. "He has been robbed."
Shelly Smith, another medical marijuana activist, talked about the economic impact of losing dispensaries in Ann Arbor.
"If the decision is upheld, then on top of the many, many, many unemployed already, you can add at least 100 more in this immediate area," she said. "You can add at least five empty buildings. At least $30,000 a month in lost rent."
Chuck Ream, owner of the Med Mar dispensary on Packard Road, told council members about being raided by the Livingston and Washtenaw Narcotics Enforcement Team.
"My Ann Arbor business was recently attacked in broad daylight and robbed by masked men with guns," he said. "My employees would have called police, but the robbers were police."
Though his store was emptied by police and three of his employees were taken into custody, no warrant was ever shown and no charges were ever filed, Ream said.
"Of course, you know what their game is," Ream said. "If my investor tries to get back his money that they stole, they will charge his child with a felony crime. That's perverted. They stole all the medicine. They went to the bank and stole what was there.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
Ream referred to a portion of the city charter, which was amended by voters several years ago to read:
"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."
Postema said state law, in this instance, trumps the city charter.
"The city charter is bound in its parameters by the state law," he said. "The city charter can't provide greater rights for dispensaries when they do not exist in state law."
Ream said he's learned the bust at his place resulted from complaints to police.
"The officers said the raid was caused because we had served two people with expired cards," he said. "Well, if that was true, they should have sent us a letter or given us a ticket."
Medical marijuana activists from across Michigan are expected to rally on the steps of the state Capitol today. Several from Ann Arbor are going, and they were expected to have a sit-down meeting with state Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, this morning before the rally starts.
Michigan voters in 2008 approved use of marijuana to relieve pain and other chronic ailments. About 100,000 people have state-issued cards letting them have 2.5 ounces of usable pot and up to 12 plants. Registered caregivers can grow marijuana for five people.
Passerini told council members the intent of the state act was to afford patients safe access to medical marijuana. But he said experience has shown it's unrealistic to expect a patient to rely on a sole caregiver — instead of dispensaries — for their medicine.
"First and foremost, it takes a seasoned cultivator four months to grow one plant, four months during which that legal patient may have to do without their medicine," he said.
"Additionally, most caregivers are unwilling to bear the expense or gain the expertise necessary to make edibles, tinctures, extractions or topicals," he said. "These are all different means of delivering medicine to patients."
Passerini said it's clear that state and federal law both need to change.
"Dispensaries cannot be allowed to be short-lived or a thing of the past, but instead a very viable solution for the future," he said.
Postema said he suspects the Michigan Supreme Court will uphold the appeals court ruling if it goes that far. He said it may take a 75 percent vote of the Legislature or another citizen-led petition drive to legalize dispensaries.
Until that happens, he said, the city must follow the prevailing state law and not allow dispensaries to operate in Ann Arbor.
"I have no choice but to accept that," Postema said. "The ruling is the law of the state of Michigan and I think it is naive to continue to suggest there's a conspiracy with the judges or there's a conspiracy with this or a conspiracy with that."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's e-mail newsletters.