The Michigan Court of Appeals last week delivered an opinion that rocked the state's medical marijuana community.
In a 3-0 ruling, the court decreed that patient-to-patient sales are illegal. Period.
That decision, for the time being at least, effectively annihilates the foundation used by many of the estimated 300 to 400 businesses that have been providing pot to registered patients, putting dispensary owners and their employees in immediate jeopardy.
As if to put an exclamation point on that message, two Ann Arbor dispensaries were raided the day after the appellate court issued its ruling in the case State of Michigan vs. Brandon McQueen and Matthew Taylor, d/b/a Compassionate Apothecary, LLC.
The victory cry from state Attorney General Bill Schuette was immediate and unrestrained.
"This ruling is a huge victory for public safety and Michigan communities struggling with an invasion of pot shops near their schools, homes and churches," the Republican AG said in a press release. "Today the court echoed the concerns of law enforcement, clarifying that the law is narrowly focused to help the seriously ill, not the creation of a marijuana free-for-all."
That's one way to look at it.
Another perspective is this: The appellate court ruling is both a significant setback for patients and a massive wake-up call to everyone who thought that the medical marijuana law overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2008 was the culmination of a struggle.
There are some who believe that the appellate court erred in its ruling, and we're told that an appeal is likely.
We here at the Hits, however, have long thought that when the courts began clearing up what people on all sides of the issue have agreed are gray areas in the law, the result would be a clamping down on entities that, no matter how they try to frame the services provided, sell pot to patients.
Logic would dictate that if more than 62 percent of the people voting in an election say that they want qualified patients to have access to medicine recommended for them by a doctor, then they should be able to do so easily.
The problem is, the law they passed was deliberately vague, and the gray areas intentional. The most important thing was to get the thing passed, so that the door would open and people see that allowing medical marijuana would be an overall benefit — not just to patients, but the state as a whole.
In taking that approach, however, the law failed to explicitly provide patients with all the tools they need in order to have unfettered access to their medicine.
For example, as pointed out to us by Samantha Moffett, a business consultant with the Ambrose Law Group in Oakland County who specializes in medical marijuana-related issues, the law allows each patient to grow 12 plants, or each designated caregiver to grow up to 12 plants for each patient.
But nowhere does it say in the law how a patient or caregiver can legally acquire the seeds, clones or plants needed to get a grow operation started. In other words, someone has to be willing to break the law for a legitimate patient or caregiver to even begin trying to start growing legally.
And what happens if a crop fails for some reason — due to a power outage at a crucial time, say, or the spread of a fungus? It appears that those patients are free to acquire their medicine wherever they can, be it off Craigslist or out on the streets. But the person on the other side of that transaction does so only at the risk of being arrested.
How does that make any kind of sense?
Or what if a person needs to take their medicine by ingesting it rather than smoking it? How many people have the skill or resources to produce marijuana butter or THC-laced edibles?
The answer is, not many. And those who can't — people who were relying on dispensaries to fill their needs ... well, they are just out of luck and doomed to suffer.
Now, it can rightly be pointed out that we here at the Hits aren't exactly neutral observers when it comes to this issue. One need only glance at the ads in this paper to see that marijuana-related businesses provide a significant stream of revenue to this rag — a revenue stream that can only grow more constricted as a result of the appellate court ruling and the subsequent closure of dispensaries that's already under way as a result.
And so, there is undeniably some self-interest on our part.
On the other hand, in terms of editorial philosophy, we have been outspoken in our support of liberal drug policies long before there was any positive bottom-line effect for doing so. We voiced that support because it conforms with a broader political philosophy that maintains the government should let us decide for ourselves what does or does not go into the bodies of adults. It is also a position born of deference to facts, the most overwhelming one being that prohibition is a policy that is a dauntingly expensive failure in all respects.
In regard to the specific issue of dispensaries, we follow the issue pretty closely here, and have seen very little in the way of real problems associated with them. Despite Schuette's overheated rhetoric about an "invasion" of pot shops threatening schools and churches, the real invasions have been conducted by overzealous prosecutors and revenue-hungry police forces unwilling to accept the will of the people.
The law enforcement community has a vested interest in seeing the War on Drugs continue. Like marauding armies, they help perpetuate themselves by seizing the assets of those unfortunate enough to fall victim to them.
No one should've ever believed that the prohibitionists would give up easily.
In a recent conversation with one of the shakers in the state's medical marijuana movement, we were told that those who support a liberal approach to the issue would eventually win out because "we have right on our side."
But being right doesn't win battles. Organization and effort do.
Which brings us to the point at hand. Michigan's medical marijuana users — and the businesses the law has helped create — have their backs up against a brick wall. And Schuette and his fellow prohibitionists are far from finished when it comes to pushing folks further into the bricks.
A package of bills recently introduced in the state Legislature is designed to place even more restrictions on patients and their access to medicine.
What should the community's response be?
Many that we've talked to advocate a campaign directed at the Legislature. If only our lawmakers are given the facts, these advocates reason, they will see the light and do the right thing. These advocates correctly note that it is not just simply a Republican vs. Democrat kind of issue. For one thing, fiscal conservatives can find reason to support changes that result in increased jobs and tax revenues at a time when the state needs both badly. And libertarians on the right agree with the view that government shouldn't be in the prohibition business.
However, we're frankly skeptical that the current Legislature is enlightened enough to open the way for dispensaries. But maybe we're wrong about that. As pointed out by Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project — eight states have created a system of regulated dispensaries since the Michigan law was first approved, and that in the vast majority of those states it was legislatures (rather than the public working through the ballot process) that initiated the changes.
However, there are some activists who are already looking ahead to the possibility that another ballot measure will be necessary to set things right here in Michigan. The big question at this point is whether such an effort should focus on strengthening the existing marijuana law by explicitly calling for legalized dispensaries and making other changes that will protect growers and guarantee patient access to their medicine, or to seek outright legalization.
It's an issue that is sure to be discussed in coming weeks.
What is certain, however, is that no change — whether though the Legislature or at the ballot box — is going to be achieved without an outpouring of public support. That means patients, their families and caregivers. It also means the accountants and lawyers and plumbers and electricians and grow shop owners and all the others who have seen the economic benefits that the law has already brought.
It also requires support from the rest of us who want to live in a state that is forward-looking and more prosperous.
To that end, there is a chance for everyone to flex their collective political muscle come Sept. 7, when what is hoped to be a large rally will be held on the steps of the state Capitol in Lansing.
They rally already has an array of support from groups that haven't always worked together in the past.
"There has never been this many medical marijuana groups coming together for one event in Michigan's history," Joe Cain, an activist with the Michigan Medical Marijuana Assn., said in a statement.
To find out more about the rally, contact Cain at 248-961-6106, or Rich Thompson of the Michigan Association of Compassion Centers at 248-721-3518.
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