Caregivers Cup in Ypsilanti draws a crowd despite setbacks
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
Tiffany Bickelhaupt came all the way from Birmingham, Ala., for the 2010 Michigan Caregivers Cup in Ypsilanti.
There had been plenty of buzz for the canceled caregivers cup competition, in which caregivers in the state's medical marijuana program were to furnish medicine for patients.
Bickelhaupt didn't come out for that. She came because she wants to be a "marijuanapreneur," a new breed of business person popping up in Michigan since the state's voters elected to legalize medical marijuana in November 2008. Bickelhaupt, a construction worker by trade, said that she's looking for a change of pace and is currently choosing between Colorado and Michigan to set up her shingle.
"I want to learn how to grow, how to get the business going, how to make edibles -everything" Bickelhaupt said. "If this ends up being something I do for a living, I'd say the trip would be worth it."
Anthony Freed, executive director of the Michigan Marijuana Chamber of Commerce, which organized the Caregivers Cup, knew he was pushing the envelope when he announced the competition.
But he believes his aims were misunderstood. The goal of the contest, Freed said, was not "to get a bunch of people smoking pot together in a tent," it was to find which marijuana strains work best for the specific ailments of the patients who were to serve as judges.
A patient with glaucoma, for instance, might want a strain that eases the pressure on her eyes, while one with severe nausea might prefer a strain that boosts appetite and allows him to hold down food.
But when local law enforcement caught wind of the event, Washtenaw County Chief Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Steve Hiller and State Police Lt. Monica Yesh, who heads up the LAWNET drug taskforce, issued statements to the media that the event would be in violation of state law.
The competition was eventually canceled and a tentative plan made to hold one in October.
Freed said he hopes to clear the air with Hiller in the coming weeks.
This morning the expo faced another setback. While the expo's organizers had wanted to charge attendees $25 per seminar, that information hadn't been mentioned on the expo's web site (nor was the $10 parking fee).
Sensing the crowd's confusion, event co-organizer Darrell Stavros issued refunds to attendees who had already shelled out cash, and announced that admittance to all lectures would be free of charge.
Said Freed: "That cut into our bottom line a little bit, but this was never just about the money." Freed said that the initial goal was 50,000 in attendance, but that talks with the venue's risk management team led him to pull back. Anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 people were expected to attend the expo over the course of the weekend.
A leukemia survivor who suffers from a bulging disc in his shoulder, Freed not only organized the event, he is a patient in the state's medical marijuana program. "This is about getting people access to the medicine they need, something the voters of this state supported strongly in 2008," he said.
Advocates call for vigilance
Lectures at the Caregiver's Cup drove home the point that 'we, the people,' 63 percent of Michigan voters, chose to legalize medical marijuana in November 2008.
But Brandy Zink, a patient advocate, said that there are already efforts afoot to tinker with the process for marijuana distribution. She cited legislation from state Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, that would replace caregivers with 10 state-run distribution centers.
Centralization of the marijuana supply for patients increases the risk that patients who need medical marijuana won't have access to it, said Tim Beck, a medical marijuana advocate. Beck spearheaded the 2004 effort to legalize medical marijuana in Detroit and helped write Michgan's law.
Under Michigan law, medical marijuana patients are allowed to grow 12 plants or possess 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Caregivers are allowed to grow 12 plants per patient, and are allowed to take on five patients at a time.
Marijuana advocates fear allowing the state government to control the marijuana supply could open the door to the federal government shutting off the tap. Even though the Obama Justice Department has said that it won't prosecute patients abiding by state law, marijuana is still a Schedule 1 narcotic, on the same level as ecstasy and heroin.
Beck and Zink both said patients and caregivers need to become educators of sorts, informing law enforcement officials as to what the law allows.
One student in Zink's lecture warned the audience that patient cards are not necessarily "get out of jail free" cards, and that test cases will be needed before the kinks in the program are worked out. This means that some people who think they're within the limits of the law may go to jail.
Beck said that that's how things went in California, despite what he calls "the best medical marijuana law in the land." He said that the reason Michigan's law isn't modeled on the California law - it's modeled on the Oregon version - is because no one thought such a law would pass in the Midwest.
One parent said that her son, who is a minor, suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. The boy went from a D and E student to an A and B student, but his parents never knew what changed until they busted him smoking pot. The mother wanted to know whether her son's ADD counted as a qualifying illness.
"It doesn't," Zink said, and without an active panel to determine which illnesses merit medical marijuana, it won't, for the foreseeable future.
Said Beck: "We have no need to be afraid. (Medical marijuana) is something we wanted and something we supported in the voting booth. We just have to fight to make sure the laws are being applied properly.
Other events today included lectures on Michigan "cannabusiness" and live music at multiple venues around Ypsilanti.
Events Sunday, the last day of the expo, will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and will feature a full slate of lectures on everything from the role of caregivers to stories of the Ann Arbor Hash Bash to the efforts of a group of marijuana activists to "tax and regulate" the leafy substance. The thinking is that taxation is a tacit acceptance of the pot trade and will put marijuana on the path to legalization.
A complete schedule of Sunday's events can be found at http://www.micaregiverscup.org/.
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.