Michigan voters couldn’t have been more clear about their intentions when they approved the Medical Marihuana Act by an overwhelming margin in 2008. They wanted to make marijuana legally available to people with chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, the law itself could hardly have been more vague. Its hazy language has created a legal mess that we’ll be sorting out in the courts for the next couple of decades – unless either the Legislature or medical marijuana advocates themselves step in to provide much-needed clarity.
Lawmakers currently are taking a crack at amending the law, and we’re underwhelmed by the attempt. Like too much of the approach we’re seen so far, the reform measures seem driven more by an overzealous effort to restrict the availability of medical marijuana, rather than a sincere attempt to carry out the will of the people.
The reforms currently before the Legislature are primarily aimed at tightening the regulations on the cards required to purchase medical marijuana and how they are obtained – prohibiting, for instance, the practice of physicians certifying patients whom they haven’t seen in person.
While the current system for getting a medical marijuana card is admittedly loose, we don’t see tightening it as a legislative priority. The intent of the law was never to impose a restrictive approval process. If the Legislature is going to tackle this law, it should focus instead on the legal chaos that currently surrounds the question of “dispensaries’’ that distribute medical marijuana.
Unfortunately, the Medical Marijuana Act offers no guidance on the issue. It authorizes the legal use of marijuana for medical purposes, but it is built around the concept that the patient grows his or her own marijuana, or receives it from a “caregiver,’’ a grower who is allowed to supply up to five patients. In the real world, that ideal notion has not proven to be particularly workable. Many patients either can’t or don’t want to grow marijuana, and it’s often hard for them to find someone who’s willing to cultivate it for them. As a result, they turn to dispensaries, which quickly began to sprout up across Michigan, particularly in communities like Ann Arbor, which long has had a lenient attitude toward marijuana and strongly supports the concept of medical marijuana.
A dispensary is a facility that often resembles a storefront operation and that distributes medical marijuana. The Medical Marihuana Act says nothing about dispensaries; nor does it adequately define what compensation someone may take for providing medical marijuana to a patient. The result has been a hodge-podge of local ordinances, raids by law enforcement officials who don’t recognize the legality of dispensaries, and years of litigation to come.
For the medical marijuana law to be carried out in the way voters intended, dispensaries should be explicitly allowed. We’re convinced the public supports the concept. What we need right now – and clearly lack – is a legal basis statewide for dispensaries to exist and be regulated in a reasonable, consistent manner. On the local level, Ann Arbor has demonstrated how this can be done. City Council, working with local medical marijuana advocates, crafted a workable ordinance that seemed to satisfy everyone’s concerns.
Ideally, we’d like to see advocates work with lawmakers on the state level to develop a coherent policy for dispensaries, much as was done here in Ann Arbor. But we’re not optimistic that the Legislature could deliver anything like that in an election year, particularly given the prohibitive mindset that seems to prevail in Lansing.
In the four years since voters adopted the law, the problems created by its silence on the dispensary issue and by its vague wording in other areas have become readily apparent. Perhaps it is time for advocates of medical marijuana to bring forward another ballot proposal that offers the clarity that their original effort lacked. We don’t underestimate the amount of work that would be involved in that, but we also are confident that voters would welcome such a measure and approve it with the same broad support they showed in 2008.
The alternative, we fear, will either be inadequate, restrictive legislation or a prolonged period of legal wrangling in the courts. It shouldn’t be that complicated. The citizens of Michigan knew what they were voting for, and they heartily endorsed it. It’s unfortunate to see this populist effort sucked into a legal quagmire that advocates may have to sort out themselves if they want their original intent to be honored.