Marijuana and fish fries

A question of priorities for federal and state officials

The preliminary reaction from the federal government regarding legally regulated marijuana in Colorado and Washington state seems fairly benign. During an exclusive interview with President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama that aired on ABC's "20/20" on Friday evening, Barbara Walters asked him if marijuana should be legalized.

"I wouldn't go that far," Obama answered. "What I think is that at this point, in Washington and Colorado, you've seen the voters speak on this issue."

Wow! But there's more. He went on to say, "It does not make sense from a prioritization point of view for us to focus on recreational drug users in a state that has already said that under state law that's legal."

"We've got bigger fish to fry," the president added.

Observers of marijuana issues have been waiting for the federal reaction since voters in two states chose to regulate marijuana in manners similar to alcohol and tobacco in the November elections. Obama discussed finding some middle ground with conflicting state and federal laws, pointing to changes in public opinion on the issue and limited government resources. 

I thought that it was telling that he said, "Congress has not yet changed the law."

Does that mean he expects Congress to address the issue? It certainly bespeaks an attitude that is not hell-bent against changing the law. Maybe we're going to have some real discussion about this at the federal level. Although results vary, most public opinion polls show about 50 percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legal. 

We'll see how the federal fish fry goes, and it may not be a long wait. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week in Boston, "There is a tension between federal law and these state laws. I would expect the policy pronouncement that we're going to make will be done relatively soon."

In Michigan, it seems legislators willy-nilly fried all the fish last week, big and little. In a nauseating display of raw power, Republicans made this a right-to-work state, passed a new emergency manager law (even though voters had just repealed the previous one), limited abortions and expanded the places where concealed weapons could be carried. Having done all that, state legislators kept the deep-fryer cooking in the wee hours of the morning to consider modifications to the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act on Friday, Dec. 14. 

It was still not exactly clear what happened between Thursday, when it seemed that HB 4834 (privatizing the certification issuing process) had been defeated, and Friday morning when it passed. The same goes for HB 4851 (defining a bona fide doctor-patient relationship) which was pulled from consideration on Thursday, but reappeared at a 4 a.m. session that took outside observers by surprise. It was literally a dark-of-the-night deal.

"Nobody understands what happened," says Tim Beck, a leading proponent of the MMMA who's been involved with lobbying on the modifications. "This lame duck session is an extraordinary time. It seems they put off and put off and put off this stuff forever and then rush it all through. It's a time when some legislators' terms limits are up. They're looking to get a job in some cases and don't care about party loyalty anymore. ... There's a lot of horse-trading behind the scenes. Apparently some promises were made and deals were cut and nobody is ever going to know what happened."

The language of the bills has evolved over time and there seems to be a lot of confusion over what exactly was enacted. I read the final Senate versions of both bills in PDF form on the state website. However the House enrolled bill, which is the version passed by both houses of the Legislature in identical form, was not available as of Friday afternoon. The major points of the Senate version of HB 4834 outline the privatization of the processing and issuing MMMA registry cards. It also sets a deadline for convening a panel to consider new qualifying medical conditions.

The major points of HB 4851 define the doctor-patient relationship, reading "the physician has completed a full assessment of the patient's medical history and current medical condition, including a relevant, in-person, medical evaluation." It includes provisions that doctors create and maintain records and intend to provide follow-up care. The bill also says that patients and caregivers must present a valid state-issued photo identification card along with a medical marijuana registry card to be considered immune from arrest and prosecution. And there is language defining what comprises an "enclosed, locked facility" for growing outdoors.

Two other less controversial bills were also passed. HB 4856 says that marijuana transported in a motor vehicle must be kept in the trunk or, if there is no trunk, not readily accessible from the inside of the vehicle (whatever that means). HB 4853 changed sentencing guidelines for illegally selling medical marijuana. I repeat that I am cautious about these depictions of the new bills because I did not read final versions of what was passed.

These changes, which go into effect April 1, 2013, were met with outrage by some individuals, who registered their protests on activist websites. But David Brogren, president of Cannabis Patients United (CPU), which did significant lobbying around the language of these bills over the past two years, was not put off. 

"I don't think they were that bad," Brogren says. "I can live with them."

Brogren believes that CPU's efforts neutered the most onerous provision of HB 4834. That would have allowed law enforcement officers access to the state registry.

"We won that battle in the end," he says. "They were going to let everybody in, including the bouncer at the local bar."

The provision of HB 4834 calling for convening a panel to consider new conditions was a moot point. The panel met for the first time on Friday, Dec. 14. Brogren, a medical marijuana patient, is the only non-physician member of the panel. He says the first petitions they will consider are for post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson's disease. But going forward Brogren sees the battle royale for the next year to be around HB 5580, regulating medical marijuana provisioning centers — that's dispensaries to us civilians.

But for the moment it seems things haven't changed that much, although there seems to be a fair amount of anger rippling around. Legislators can say they did something about clearing up the "hazy" law even though they sneaked in the middle of the night to do it. And law-abiding medical marijuana patients can pretty much continue doing what they've been doing. 

Nationally and in Michigan there will be quite a few initiatives to consider. Medical Marijuana Business Daily predicts that more than a dozen states, mostly those that already have medical marijuana laws, will consider legalizing marijuana in 2013 through legislation or citizens' initiatives. The Web publication expects that only a couple of them will win.

Having failed to get a full legalization measure on the ballot this year, Michigan advocates aren't expected to immediately try another statewide effort; it looks like 2016 could be the next target date for that.

Instead, activists here are mulling proposals similar to those passed in Flint and Grand Rapids this year for some other cities around the state. Nothing definite, but stay tuned. There are plenty of fish yet to fry.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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