Higher Ground: A Wild West for Michigan marijuana

Frontier justice?

Feb 1, 2017 at 1:00 am

Since the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) became law in 2008, there have been a slew of legal maneuvers, precedent-setting cases, and even a new set of laws in 2016 regulating how cannabis may be cultivated and sold. All of these actions have been aimed, from one perspective or another, at clarifying what the law really intends.

Public opinion overwhelmingly supports medical marijuana, and recreational use is supported at margins that win most elections. Still, there are many who consider the plant to be the scourge of humanity. They are sizable and powerful enough to cause significant troubles of all kinds to their opposition.

So we're going to fight about it.

One tactic of the fight has been "the law says you can have it but it doesn't say where you can get it" ploy. Which brings us to the Clinical Relief case.

On Aug. 25, 2010, Clinical Relief, a medical marijuana dispensary in Ferndale, was raided by the Oakland County Sheriff. It was part of a series of raids whereby Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper laid down the law that there would be no marijuana dispensaries in Oakland County.

That case still isn't settled. By the time the trial gets underway in June, it will be nearly seven years that the lives of defendants Barbara Agro, Anthony Agro, Nicholas Agro, Ryan Richmond, and Barbara Johnson were upended. They face various counts of conspiracy and delivery of a controlled substance. Their lawyers met in court last week to set dates for legal proceedings.

They can't come too soon for Barbara Agro, 76 years old and the mother of the other Agro defendants. Her husband, Sal, would also be facing charges except that he died of a heart attack a few days after their arrests. Actually, it probably can't come soon enough for all parties concerned.

One proceeding is a Feb. 15 hearing on a key motion presented by the prosecution. That motion is to suppress the fact that all defendants were medical marijuana patients or caregivers and they were acting under the belief that it was all legal and protected under the MMMA. The city of Ferndale gave Clinical Relief a certificate of occupancy and the mayor toured the premises, praising it in media reports. The county saw it differently.

"I think they are trumped-up charges against people who had no intent to ever commit a crime," says Lansing attorney Mary Chartier Mittendorf, who represents Barbara Agro. "This is really an example of government overreaching and not respecting the vote of the people."

Part of that disrespect is in not allowing juries to know that defendants are medical marijuana patients, thereby hiding the context of the activities. Furthermore, in 2016 the state legislature created laws that said that there can be marijuana stores, so prosecuting someone for having had a marijuana store seems a little ridiculous. I left a message at the office of Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper asking why the county is continuing to pursue the charges. As of deadline there was no response.

"The prosecutor has filed a motion for the judge to prevent us from arguing what our clients believed at the time they were operating Clinical Relief, no mention of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act," says attorney Neil Rockind, who represents Richards. "The clients believed, albeit wrongfully, that they were in compliance with the act. We are in total opposition. ... The facts of the case are that with the blessing of the city they had a shop that was open in broad daylight."

The circuitous trail of this case has tested the wills of all concerned. The raid and charges came after sheriff's deputies made medical purchases at the facility with fake state identification cards that they manufactured themselves. Convictions, appeals, charges dismissed, charges reinstated, convictions affirmed by the Court of Appeals, etc., have led to where we are now. Arguing, yet again, about if the defense can argue that the defendants believed they were compliant with the MMMA.

And if not, their lawyers can let the cat out of the bag in other ways.

"It's an important motion but it's not key to the whole case," Mittendorf says. "There are viable defenses. The jury will be able to understand what happened to them."

Attorney Paul Tylenda, who represents Nicholas Agro, has experience in revealing that kind of information under duress.

"Yes, I've done it before, let it be known," he says. "The people aren't dumb. Ask a cop a few questions, truth will come out, and the jury will understand."

At this point, all of the defendants understand the issue here. It comes down to a legal "state of mind" wherein they believed they were compliant with the law. It's also about whether there are protections under the MMMA. Unfortunately for too many people, that has not been the case in Oakland County. Now that point is under contention for five people who should never have been charged in the first place. The county came down hard when maybe a notice to "cease and desist" might have done the job. But Cooper, and Sheriff Mike Bouchard, were sending a message.

"I think it's become a situation for prosecutors that they can't concede because they can't show weakness," Tylenda says. "They have to push the arrow through rather than pull the arrow out because it's too deep in the flesh."

Dredging up an image from old Western movies seems appropriate for the situation. The situation in Michigan regarding medical marijuana has been described as a Wild West situation numerous times. The implication is that marijuana users are out of control and need to be reined in.

Here's another thing about the Wild West. Justice was applied unevenly, erratically and was dependent on wildly divergent opinions.

I guess we do need to get out of the Wild West mentality.

Everybody say "Om"

I've heard people in the Detroit caregiver centers community talk about wanting to become more like the places in Ann Arbor as far as their medical mission. The places I've been to in Detroit are security heavy and the bud tenders are not very chatty.

I've only been inside a couple of places in Ann Arbor but I've got to tell you the folks there like to talk. Maybe that's an outgrowth of the tolerant attitude that city has shown toward marijuana that has fostered an openness and curiosity rather than paranoia.

With that enlightenment in mind, I find it interesting that the Om of Medicine in Ann Arbor is taking its medical mission to another level with medical marijuana support group meetings at the Main Street facility. At least initially it looks like the Om is pitching to people who want to reduce their use of opiates or other pharmaceutical drugs, or those who wish to eliminate alcohol or nicotine from their lives. The first meeting was this past Sunday, but it's open to all patients. You can give the Om a call at 248-369-8255.

Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located, is a prime example of how being tolerant of cannabis does not destroy your community. And the Om is an example of how people who don't have to be looking over their shoulder all the time and being consumed with paranoia can move things forward in a positive way.