Two years after Michigan voters approved the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, the state’s medical marijuana industry is still slowly getting on its feet.

The ballot initiative passed in November 2008 legalized the use of marijuana to treat medical conditions. But, qualifying patients can’t just walk into their local pharmacies and pick up a prescription for the drug. Instead, they have to go through a slew of steps including registering with the state, deciding how to get the medicine and figuring out for themselves how to dose the medicine.

And because of federal drug laws, they face obstacles at every step of the process.

The Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana, along with GHB, heroin and LSD, as a schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I is the most restrictive out of the five drug classifications listed under the act. The category consists of drugs that have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States. In 2001, the DEA denied a petition to make marijuana a less restricted classification, citing its lack of medical use as the primary reason.

With major discrepancies between state and federal attitudes toward medical marijuana, it’s no surprise that things haven’t been smooth sailing for the industry since the drug was legalized for medical use.

Physicians and policy makers agree that there’s a lack of federally supported research on the medical benefits of the drug. Despite a vow from President Barack Obama’s administration not to penalize legal medical marijuana operations, many doctors, marijuana providers and patients fear federal prosecution. These difficulties, along with the stigma associated with marijuana, make it difficult to obtain and use the drug legally.

As Ann Arbor resident Connie Bank, who uses marijuana for her arthritis and fibromyalgia, put it, the industry is a little bit like “the wild wild west.”

Mike Meno, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project — the organization responsible for drafting Michigan’s medical marijuana law — said that with medical marijuana laws already in place in 14 states and under consideration in others, pressure on the federal government to reconsider its views on marijuana is building.

“We’re really reaching a critical mass where the federal government can’t keep its head in the sand anymore,” Meno said.

According to the Marijuana Policy Project website, there are currently three pieces of legislation under consideration in the United States Congress that, if passed, would significantly impact federal drug policy. The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act would allow citizens to possess up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana without facing federal criminal penalties. The Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act would legalize medical marijuana nationwide. The Truth in Trials Act would protect state-sanctioned medical marijuana patients and caregivers from federal criminal penalties.

In 2009, the American Medical Association announced that it supported further research into marijuana’s medical benefits.

“Our American Medical Association (AMA) urges that marijuana’s status as a federal Schedule I controlled substance be reviewed with the goal of facilitating the conduct of clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines,” AMA reported.

As the country continues to adjust its views of marijuana, Michigan’s medical marijuana industry continues to struggle with not only a lack of federally supported research, but also with the stigma that comes with building an industry around a schedule I drug.

Mike McLeod, one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Patient Collective, said many people are uncomfortable with a legalized form of marijuana because it has been criminalized for so long.

“There’s still a lot of fear,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the community who have seen (marijuana) as being illegal. They’ve watched people go to jail. They’ve watched parents lose their children. They’ve been told their whole life that if you grow a marijuana plant, you’ll go to prison.”

When Connie Bank’s doctor, who she said is the “go-to-guy” in Ann Arbor for arthritis and lupus, gave her written certification to qualify for medical marijuana, he asked her not to tell anyone.

“He believes that it works, he’s just afraid,” she said.

Despite the obstacles in their path, medical marijuana patients, caregivers and advocates vow to continue building the industry throughout the next few years. At the end of the August A2M2PC meeting, which occurred one week after Ann Arbor’s City Council passed a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries, Dennis Hayes, another founder of A2M2PC and a local lawyer who specializes in medical marijuana legislation, looked out at the group of patients and caregivers with a big smile on his face.

“It’s going to be a whale of fun for the next three to five years,” he said.

— For a look at how patients register for medical marijuana see Part 2 of this series tomorrow.

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