MD

The Statement

Friday, April 18, 2014

Advertise with us »

How Michigan marijuana patients get their medicine

Sam Wolson/Daily
Buy this photo

BY JESSICA VOSGERCHIAN
Magazine Editor
Published September 22, 2009

On the afternoon of Aug. 11, Dominick’s was as bustling as could be expected on a sunny summer’s day. With barely a table available on the back patio, the tin of friendly chatter and the tinkling of sangria-filled jars created a lighthearted atmosphere. But tucked away in the far back, a much more serious conversation was going on. There, people from all walks of life had come together to discuss their one unifying factor: the desire to treat themselves or others with medical marijuana.

While from the outside seeming like a casual gathering like any other taking place on the patio, this meeting of the Michigan Marijuana Patient Collective was anything but carefree. Nearly all of the 30 or so participants suffered from a debilitating condition, from leukemia to chronic migraines. Some people were so ill they said they barely leave their homes except for doctor appointments. But for registered patients, such meetings are one of the only available means to figure out how to get marijuana.

Michigan took a progressive step when voters approved the Michigan Compassionate Care Initiative last November. But in some crucial ways, the program is out of touch with needs of the patients it serves. Michigan isn’t alone — out of the 13 states that administer medical marijuana programs, only California provides a means for dispensing to patients through cannabis pharmacies. Dennis Hayes, an Ann Arbor lawyer who specializes in drug law, said that states declined to operate dispensary systems to avoid being direct suppliers in the face of federal laws prohibiting marijuana.

“One of the problems is that the state can’t encourage people to act collectively,” Hayes said. “The reason is no state can publicly endorse breaking a federal law.”

But chances that the War on Drugs will heat back up and target medical marijuana are slim to none. Following California’s example, states could — and many people say, should — provide guidance for marijuana patients who, by virtue of being approved for the program, have serious conditions that make extra help all the more valuable.

As it stands right now, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program presents a catch-22 for patients: You can smoke weed, but it’s up to you to figure out how. Vague regulations governing the program also induce anxiety for patients who are afraid that in trying to get their medicine, they’ll run afoul of state drug laws.

FEELING LIKE A CRIMINAL

Even though marijuana is now legal for thousands of people in Michigan, registered patients are still skittish about speaking outright about it. All patients and caregivers interviewed for this story asked that their full names not be printed so as not to draw attention to their activities.

Several people talked about how smoking marijuana still feels illicit even with a registered patient card in pocket. The same people who passed around lit pipes at the Dominick’s meeting were unwilling to be identified as marijuana smokers to the outside world. Some cited the stigma attached to the vilified substance.

“We’re from the Reagan Drug War era,” a patient named Kirk said. “This is crazy.”

But besides a residual feeling of guilt surrounding marijuana, there are other more tangible threats dogging patients and caregivers. The Michigan Medical Marijuana Program has only been operational since April, which means the nuances of the law are not yet well known by both patients and law enforcers. A patient couple in Madison Heights ran into trouble in March when the police raided their house and confiscated 21 plants, The Detroit News reported. The two had been approved by a physician as patients but were waiting to receive their cards in the mail. A judge later dismissed the charges and derided the new marijuana law for its lack of clarity, saying it was the “worst piece of legislation (he) has ever seen in (his) life.”

The problem comes down to the law’s guidelines, which initially seem clear but become confusing when applied to the transfer of marijuana from caregiver to patient. The law stipulates that a caregiver may possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and 12 plants for each of up to five patients. A patient who has authorized a caregiver to grow marijuana may possess 2.5 ounces of usable product. But does that mean that 5 ounces can be held in the name of one patient, or just 2.5?

It may seem like splitting hairs, but patients feel like they need to be as careful as possible. They do live in a state that has a long history of throwing the book at marijuana offenders. Ann Arbor lawyer Dennis Hayes knows just how bent against marijuana the courts can be. Hayes has worked on drug law since 1972, when he helped create Ann Arbor’s infamous pot law — which instituted a small fine as the maximum punishment for marijuana possession in the city.