After receiving hundreds of complaints from medical marijuana card holders that they would be without the product they need for their health for an extended period of time, the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs reversed itself Wednesday and decided to let dispensaries stay open during the licensing process.
The department had come up with a ruling in September that dispensaries should close by Dec. 15, which is the day that applications for five categories of licenses become available, or risk losing their chances of getting one of the lucrative licenses.
But medical marijuana cardholders — more than 272,000 in Michigan — worried that the lapse of time between applications and licenses being awarded by the state early next year would leave many of them without access to the product they use to treat a variety of ailments from cancer to epilepsy.
So the state approved an emergency rule Wednesday that will allow existing dispensaries that have gone through an approval process in the community where they operate to stay open while they go through the state licensing process.
“Patient input played a big factor,” said Andrew Brisbo, director of the state's Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation. “When we looked at the feedback, especially from people with the greatest difficulty of access, we wanted to ensure that those folks would have access to their medicine.”
The ruling goes against the feelings of two members of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board — retired Michigan State Police officer Don Bailey and chairman Rick Johnson — who wanted the dispensaries to shut down even sooner than Dec. 15.
But Brisbo said board members were made aware of the ruling and would honor its impact.
"Administrative rules have the effect of law, and the board can't make decisions outside the confines of the rules," he said.
With the Dec. 15 deadline looming, legislators in both the House and Senate had proposed legislation that would have allowed dispensaries to stay open during the transition to the fully regulated market. But those bills only got one hearing and no vote.
“We're really excited that the department is working to allow patients to continue accesssing medicine in a safe way during the transition period,” said Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, one of the sponsors of the bill. “It doesn't matter if it's a legislative fix or emergency rules. We're just in favor of something that's going to guarantee safe access.
Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, another sponsor of the legislation, said after hearing from medical marijuana patients that he was all in favor of allowing dispensaries to stay open.
“Certainly, I want dispensaries to follow the law and get licensing, but there does need to be a transition period and as the representative of the Epilepsy Foundation stated at our hearing, it's a matter of life and death for some of these people,” he said.
The medical pot shops that do stay open won't be guaranteed a license from the state, even if they have the blessing of their local community. But the fact that they continue to operate during the licensing process won't hurt their chances for a license.
Some of the dispensaries that have been operating with permission from their communities had closed down when LARA first came out with the advisory that they should shut down by Dec. 15.
Amir Makled, an attorney representing Advanced Wellness in Detroit, was thrilled by the news. The Detroit dispensary shut down in September after the initial rule came out because the owners didn't want to jeopardize their chance at a license.
“It had a significant impact on them and their patients. They had to cover all of their costs for their building out of pocket,” Makled said. “And every one of their patients were in a real bind.”
Advanced Wellness has three dispensaries in Detroit, but only one of them had gotten approval from the city to operate. So that one on Warren will reopen and the other two will remain closed until they can get approval for a license.
There are dispensaries operating all over the state, including Detroit, Lansing, Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Flint. But other dispensaries, especially in northern Michigan, have shut down after police raided the facilities. Eight facilities were told to shut down last month by the Grand Traverse County Prosecutor's Office after a sting operation by a narcotics enforcement team led by Michigan State Police.
The applications for five categories of licenses — growers, processors, testers, secure transporters and dispensaries — will be available from the state on Dec. 15. The Michigan Medical Marijuana Licensing Board will begin awarding licenses early next year.
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