Getting organized 

Compassion clubs embrace new statewide group

It was a display of the worst behavior — publicly taunting a 7-year-old girl in the late stages of Huntington's disease on a Facebook page. However, in the wake of that atrocious act by a neighbor, the outpouring of support for Kathleen Edwards, the young Downriver girl, was an equally heartening outpouring of the best of human kindness.

Kathleen was showered with donations from around the world, a trip to an Ann Arbor toy store, and a couple of thousand people attended an Oct. 23 rally in her support at Trenton's Elizabeth Park. Among Kathleen's gifts there was a $350 gift card and a five-day trip to Kalahari Resorts in Sandusky, Ohio, donated by the Michigan Association of Compassion Centers.

"The public needs to know who we are," says Ryan Baser of the Capital City Caregivers, a medical marijuana compassion club in Lansing. "We want to show everyone that we're here to support the patients and the community. We're doing food drives in Lansing, Ypsilanti, Port Huron and Detroit. We're starting a coat drive for Thanksgiving and Christmas. In Lansing, there's a local toys program where a police officer takes kids shopping that we're participating in."

It's the kind of civic involvement you hear about from local business associations around this time of year. Except the MACC is an unknown entity, and their business is, shall we say, controversial. Some observers might look at their charitable activities with a jaundiced eye. They might say that it's a public show that covers up their shady activities. It takes some getting used to. But MACC members seem to be trying to maintain their business openly and legally under intense scrutiny from local governments and law enforcement.

The MACC was organized in the wake of the August busts of two Oakland County "compassion clubs" that authorities alleged were illegal marijuana dispensaries. There was obvious concern at other places that were involved in marijuana exchanges that they might be next.

"We saw the horrible way some people are being treated, how patients and caregivers were violated," says Jamie Lowell of the Third Coast Caregivers in Ypsilanti. "We need to protect our collective membership. There was a void in community where someone needed to step up and get rallies organized, find legal help for those who need it, help out on political campaigns, and promote good neighbor policies and attitudes."

There are 10 compassion clubs in the MACC, and they're said to represent a combined 6,000 patients mostly in southeast Michigan. The member organizations pay a $1,000 initiation fee plus $300 a month. They meet every two weeks and are in daily contact through e-mail. Like other business associations, they set standards among their membership. When a compassion club wants to join, they talk to them about staying within the law.

"We've started working to set a standard for the rest of the state in how to operate the correct legal way — how to do business, how to treat patients right, how to do security, how to work with local municipalities instead of against them," says Baser. "Our main focus is protecting our patients. Anytime there's a case and something going on that's not fair, we'd like to send a lawyer, legal representation, so they are not railroaded. Most of these people didn't do anything wrong in the first place."

Of course, there are areas of the law that are still being sorted out by the courts, and one of those gray areas is whether and how marijuana can change hands in compassion clubs.

MACC members expect to have their nonprofit status verified this week and start admitting new members next week. Several additional memberships have been unofficially approved. When a compassion club asks to join, the MACC does things you might expect of more conventional business associations. They send members to the clubs unannounced to check out the security and see if they are properly checking state cards.

"It will help a club to achieve these standards," Lowell says. "If they are good people, we try to help bring them up to snuff in our opinion. Most places that are in operation came through our place, Third Coast, because we were the first one up and running. We've taken that seriously to be a model, although we have room to grow and room for improvement. But we have to get on the same page with a lot of people. I mean law enforcement, municipal officials, patients, caregivers and doctors, we all should have the same understanding of this law so you don't have to go through criminal proceedings or lawsuits."

As the fronts on the drug war evolve, it's going to take time, education and communication to get past former attitudes and entrenched positions. Some areas are going to change faster than others. Bayer says that things are working well in the Lansing area, where Ingham County officials have been "incredibly supportive." Bayer gets a bit giddy in touting some 25 medical marijuana-related businesses in Lansing that are positively impacting the local economy. But then you can't blame him for being a little giddy.

"I actually got pulled over by the Michigan State University police with four big marijuana plants in my car," he says. "They ended up letting me go. I talked to them for about 30 minutes; they were pretty interested. At MSU, if you have your card and less than 2 ounces of marijuana and aren't staying in any federally funded housing, it's not a problem. The head detective told me that's how they are handling things. It was a positive police experience."

Maybe we can all be on our best behavior as we work our way through this medical marijuana moment in Michigan.


Medicated feds:
While the federal government has officially denied that marijuana has any medical benefits, it's a different story behind the scenes. The U.S. government actually holds a patent for the medical use of marijuana. U.S. Patent 6630507, granted in 2003, and titled "Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants," is held by the United States of America as represented by the Department of Health and Human Services. The abstract to the patent reads: "Cannabinoids have been found to have antioxidant properties, unrelated to NMDA receptor antagonism. This newfound property makes cannabinoids useful in the treatment and prophylaxis of wide variety of oxidation-associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The cannabinoids are found to have particular application as neuroprotectants, for example, in limiting neurological damage following ischemic insults, such as stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and HIV dementia." One of those cannabinoids is commonly known as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the component of marijuana that gets you high. Does this mean that, when the ground-level compassion clubs build up the market, the government will swoop in for a piece of the action? At the very least, the government's hypocrisy about medical marijuana is evident when they deny that marijuana has medical value while it holds the patent for the medical use of the substance.

More by Larry Gabriel

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