Despite all the action on marijuana in Michigan this year, the bong remains the same

Nov 20, 2019 at 1:00 am
Despite all the action on marijuana in Michigan, the bong remains the same

It's been a year since Michigan voted to legalize adult-use marijuana, and while a lot has happened since then, the general landscape of marijuana use remains the same. Last November's vote was ratified on Dec. 6. Since then, marijuana has been legal for adults to grow, possess, and use in the state. So what's happening?

There has been lots of upheaval as far as marijuana regulation and the new industry is concerned. Right off, as we were voting on the new way, the old way was in turmoil — well, it was in the court. The only reason a number of provisioning centers were open was due to a judges' stay of a state order that would've closed them. Somehow within that action were also provisions for caregivers to continue selling their stock into the legal medical marijuana system.

The same election that legalized marijuana brought in a new gubernatorial administration that had been very cannabis-friendly during the campaign, in addition to the new state attorney general. This was in contrast to previous administrations in which the governor didn't address the medical marijuana issue, and the attorney general led opposition to implementing the 2008 law.

Immediately after the vote, people were ready to use the stuff. Everywhere you turned, people were putting CBD in drinks. It didn't take long for the state to stop that practice in commercial establishments. Apparently, the federal and state food and drug offices have something to say about what you put in food to sell.

The other practice that jumped off right after the vote was gifting marijuana. In the absence of actual retail outlets where people could buy marijuana, gifting became the distribution method of choice. The way it operates is that a customer buys an overpriced T-shirt or chocolate bar or something. Then the seller would take a liking to you and give you a "gift" of marijuana. Experts consider this practice legally dubious.

Possibly the year's biggest step was when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer threw out the rascals on the Medical Marijuana Licensing Board. She accomplished it by literally creating a new office, the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, and scuttling a group that had been foot dragging and creating obstacles in the task of getting medical marijuana facilities licensed and operating.

The MRA has been much quicker about processing license applications and making decisions than its predecessor. However, on the public side, the system was an absolute mess, and administrators are still digging out from the dysfunctional system they inherited.

In the six months since the new agency has been on the job, they've managed to pull together a social equity program aimed at healing communities that were hardest hit by the war on drugs. The program helps minorities and those who have marijuana offenses on their records get into the industry. Unlike other states with social equity programs, the legislature has not appropriated funding for such a program. Although there's no money behind the program, MRA staff has been nimble in pulling together business-building resources within the state departments to support applicants to the program. However, legislators need to get behind the initiative with some cash.

For all the action on marijuana in the past year, things haven’t changed much for recreational users.

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Speaking of the war on drugs, law enforcement has not been happy with marijuana legalization. Among the biggest issues has been the lack of an objective way to measure whether a driver is impaired by marijuana. There have been pilot studies in the state, but there's nothing akin to an alcohol breathalyzer for marijuana in use now, so the state has declined to set a level of blood THC content. (On that subject, a recent study reported in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that the main driving response to marijuana use was to drive slower.)

Recently police have complained that "the strong odor of marijuana" no longer gives them cause to search homes and vehicles, and to drag people off to jail. Law enforcement is having to adjust how it operates around marijuana, moving from a zero-tolerance policy to accommodation in most situations. Legalization has also led to the "retirement" of marijuana-sniffing police dogs. They can't be untrained to go after marijuana. Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, can be told to go after rapists and corporate polluters rather than marijuana users.

Two problems for users were prominent this past year. One is the ongoing lack of supplies at provisioning centers; the other is the vaping crisis because using vaporizer cartridges has sickened and killed people across the country. A Michigan teenager had a double-lung transplant last week after his lungs were damaged from vaping. All of the evidence about this is not clear, but it does point to the need for good regulation of these products. And as much as it might not be fair to companies whose vaporizers are not sickening people, it's probably best to leave them alone until this is well sorted out.

In the meantime, provisioning centers, grow operations, and other marijuana-oriented businesses have been cropping up across the state, creating the infrastructure of the industry. It's happening in fits and starts. Most retail operations are hanging on for dear life, waiting for the recreational market to come along and save them. That may or may not happen. The recreational market is set for a slow start, rather than a bang. The reality of growing, testing, and processing marijuana is that you don't suddenly pop up out of nowhere with products. These things have to develop.

The state recently surprised when it announced it would allow Michigan recreational marijuana sales to start Dec. 1, as opposed to early 2020 as originally reported. The big question about the new recreational-use market has been: where is the marijuana going to come from, since all marijuana currently growing is medical?

The MRA plans to allow transfers of product at marijuana provisioning centers from the medical side to the adult-use side. According to David Harns, spokesman for the MRA, "The concept is that if you have a license on the medical side and you have an equivalent license on the adult-use side with common ownership, starting Dec. 1 those people would be able to move product from the provisioning center side to the retailer side as long as it has been in inventory for the past 30 days or more and only up to 50 percent of the product."

OK, let's run through that again. Provisioning center owners who also have adult-use licenses can switch up to 50 percent of the product over if it has been in inventory for 30 days or more. Suddenly, a situation that did not seem workable seems a little less unworkable.

"It should be a nice rollout into the adult-use market," says Harns.

There's still significant resistance to marijuana use, however. Some 1,300 state communities have opted out of allowing recreational sales for now. Detroit threw a scare into folks when city council announced that recreational sales in the city would not start until Jan. 31 while members draft an ordinance regarding stores. They've had a year to do that, but the foot draggers in city power circles have been affecting the process. However, Detroit's delays may allow some dispensaries to open, despite the ban.

So for all the action on marijuana in the past year, things haven't changed much for recreational users. There aren't any stores — and when they open, there probably won't be much marijuana available. More than a decade of medical marijuana use has allowed caregivers and others to create a significant marketplace for their wares while they've been excluded from legal sales opportunities beyond their specific patients. Caregivers are also feeding the black market.

One year after the legalization vote, things are mostly the same. The medical marijuana market is struggling, the adult-use market hasn't established itself yet, and the black market has the confidence of the average marijuana user.

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