LANSING - The state House today gave final approval to a package of bills — years in the making — to license, tax and regulate the cultivation, processing, transport, testing and sale of various forms of medical marijuana, which state voters legalized in a 2008 referendum but it has often been purchased and used in a regulatory vacuum and state of confusion.
The House signed off Wednesday on changes the Senate made last week to three of the five bills, meaning the entire package is on its way to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who is expected to sign them.
Some advocates for medical marijuana patients are cheering the legislation, but others said the new requirements go too far and could significantly drive up prices.
About 210,000 Michigan residents are authorized to grow, purchase or use medical marijuana for a variety of ailments, including cancer, AIDS, control of seizures, and severe and chronic pain.
Robin Schneider, legislative policy director for the National Patients Rights Association, based in Grosse Pointe, said: "We believe this is the best common-sense regulatory framework that will assure that patients get access to all forms of medical marijuana," and that what they get is safe and in carefully measured doses.
But Jamie Lowell of Ypsilanti, cofounder of Third Coast Dispensary and Compassion Center, said the new law on dispensaries isn't needed in Washtenaw County, where he operates.
“I’m perplexed about why a system that has been in place in this state for seven years, right in the backyards of some of these legislators and functioning just fine, is being replaced by an overly restrictive, costly new system,” Lowell said on Tuesday night, just after activists met at his business to discuss the new laws’ potential effects.
The dispensary law would create a five-member medical marijuana licensing board, appointed by the governor, with no more than three members from the same political party.
The board and the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs is to, among other duties, provide "oversight of marijuana facilities to ensure that marijuana-infused products meet health and safety standards that protect the public to a degree comparable to state and federal standards applicable to similar food and drugs."
Growers, processors, secure transporters, dispensaries and accredited testing facilities would all be state-licensed. The costs of the application fee and an annual regulatory assessment have not yet been set. Licenses are issued for one year and are renewable annually. Licensees are subject to extensive disclosure requirements and would be required to conduct background checks on prospective employees.
Dispensaries would be taxed at 3% of their gross receipts, with some of the proceeds used to support law enforcement in municipalities where marijuana facilities are located.
Marijuana facilities could operate only in municipalities that have authorized them through local ordinances, and municipalities could limit the number and where they could locate. They can also charge licensees an annual fee of up to $5,000 to defray administrative and enforcement costs.
Medical marijuana dispensaries, already on shaky ground, received a major setback in May when a state appeals court effectively ruled that medical marijuana patients could get their cannabis only by growing it themselves or from caregivers authorized to serve a small number of patients.
The new legislation aims to clarify and standardize what is now a patchwork of selective enforcement in which some counties — including Oakland — raid and shutter virtually every dispensary, while others, such as Wayne and Washtenaw, turn a blind eye to the shops that are often marked with green crosses, a marketing symbol for medical marijuana.
“What we have now is totally out of control, the wild wild West," said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. "We have 70 or 80 dispensaries in Lansing alone. It’s up to us to bring clarity to this.”
One of the bills would legalize the use of non-smokeable forms of marijuana, such as oils or brownies and other edible forms routinely referred to as "medibles," that can be used by people, even children, with medical needs.
That's important to Ida Chinonis of Grand Blanc, whose 7-year-old daughter Bella finally found relief from constant seizures by taking a cannabis oil three times a day.
Since she began taking the cannabis oil, starting about two years ago, "she's started to bloom into becoming a little girl," Chinonis told the Free Press before lawmakers convened Wednesday. "I just hope that the House of Representatives hear her cry for help."
Chinonis now buys her cannabis oil at a dispensary in Detroit, but she's worried about potential legal liability without state laws to protect her. She would also welcome the possibility of an alternative supplier closer to her home.
The main bill, House Bill 4209, as amended by the Senate, passed the House 83-22 Wednesday, with House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, among the no votes. Greimel shared concerns of Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard that people with criminal histories could potentially get involved in the medical marijuana business.
"The biggest problem ... is that it allows people with serious criminal convictions, including violent felonies, to own and operate marijuana businesses," said Greimel spokeswoman Katie Carey.
"If the Legislature decides to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries and other related businesses, it is imperative that the businesses be strictly regulated and that there be stricter prohibitions on the involvement of those with criminal histories, including a lifetime ban for violent felons and for those convicted of money-laundering, among others."
Anna Heaton, a spokeswoman for Snyder, said "the governor will still need to review the final versions before making a decision on signing, but overall he is supportive of the policies and appreciates all the hard work the Legislature did to get to this point."
The bill package provides for three classes of grower licenses, with caps of 500 to 1,500 marijuana plants per license.
The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs would set standards for various facilities;, set out how much insurance must be purchased by licensees and establish quality control standards, labeling and packaging standards, and testing standards and procedures. It would also oversee a "statewide monitoring system to track all marijuana transfers."
The board and its agents, including auditors and the Michigan State Police, would have the right to inspect marijuana facilities at any time, without notice or the need for a search warrant.
Those operating within the scope of their licenses are protected under the new law from state or local criminal or civil prosecution for marijuana-related offenses.
The bills had been stuck in a Senate committee for 11 months, with sponsors unable to get the majority needed to move to the full Senate. But last Thursday, the bills were discharged from the committee and passed by the full Senate with the bare amount of votes necessary.
The bills — HB 4209-4210, 4827, SB 141 and SB 1014 — build on the constitutional amendment passed by voters to legalize medical marijuana in 2008.
Reaction to the bills’ final passage has been building in advance — vehemently pro and con — on the Internet’s marijuana forums and in law enforcement circles ever since the sudden Senate action last week.
“Some folks are happy for any legalization crumbs — I've worked too hard to accept that,” said Debra Young, 58, of Ferndale, a state-registered user of medical marijuana for glaucoma.
Young has campaigned for years on behalf of having Michigan legalize marijuana that would be taxed and regulated like alcoholic beverages. She said she opposed the new rules for dispensaries because she said they’d drive up costs for users, but she was glad to see Michigan join other states in allowing non-smoked forms of medical marijuana.
“So many ill people, including children, needed this badly,” Young said.
But Rick Thompson of suburban Flint, editor of the online Compassion Chronicles site on medical marijuana, said the bill on dispensaries “represents everything bad about the legislative process in Michigan" as "a tale of special-interest concessions, law-enforcement lobbying and political manipulation."
Lowell said the security required in the bills to safely transport cannabis is excessive. “You don’t need two armed guards to transport medical marijuana,” he said.
Also, “the marijuana now gets taxed — no other medicine is taxed in Michigan."
Schneider disputed claims the legislation will drive up the price of cannabis, which she said is now in the range of $200 to $400 an ounce for medical marijuana patients, and said allowing larger-scale grow operations is likely to bring the price down through economies of scale.
(2016 © Detroit Free Press)