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Details of medical marijuana law still hazy as April implementation approaches


Details of medical marijuana law still hazy as April implementation approaches

by Tom Gantert | The Ann Arbor News

Monday February 02, 2009, 2:00 PM



Come April 4, Michigan residents suffering from certain illnesses will be allowed to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, but one big, lingering question remains: How do they get the drug without breaking state and federal criminal laws?


The answer appears to be as hazy as Cheech and Chong's van.


A statewide ballot referendum approved by voters in November allows registered patients in Michigan's marijuana program to grow and possess it. But police say buying the seeds can get them arrested. It's against the law to purchase it off the street. And doctors aren't allowed to prescribe it.


"There will be a major problem with getting the marijuana," admitted Charles Ream of Scio Township, who has advocated for the legalization of medicinal marijuana for years.


Statutory law doesn't always jibe with reality, say some marijuana advocates.

Legal hurdles aside, the Michigan law will be effective, said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-pot advocacy group, The Marijuana Policy Project.


Getting the drug isn't that tough, Mirken said. He pointed to a 2008 University of Michigan study that showed 42.6 percent of high school seniors reported using pot in their lifetime, and 83.9 percent said it was easy to get.


In December, the state came up with draft rules for its medicinal marijuana program and held a public hearing Jan. 5. A state spokesman said officials are reviewing some suggested revisions.


Yet, federal law still makes it illegal to possess marijuana - which makes many doctors leery of discussing the new law.


Three local doctors contacted by The News said they didn't want to comment - one said he didn't know enough about the law, and another said he didn't vote for the measure and believes other treatments better serve patients.


Bruce Spiher, a spokesman for the University of Michigan Hospital, said he could find no doctors willing to go on the record about it.


David Fox, a spokesman for the Michigan State Medical Society, said Thursday that the group opposed the medical marijuana proposal last fall because of the harmful effects of smoking and the fact that there's no uniformity or standard in marijuana manufacturing.


But Fox also said the group supports more research on the active ingredient in marijuana to determine its efficacy, as well as other possible ways to use the drug aside from smoking it.


"We were involved in the public hearings a couple weeks ago and agreed that the rules they're developing are in line with the ballot proposal," Fox said.


Fox said doctors who are willing to enroll patients in the medicinal marijuana program simply need to complete the necessary paperwork.


"That's where the gap is," Fox said. "The rules they developed have fairly clear paperwork, and they can obtain a permit. But obtaining seeds or marijuana are both illegal. There's a missing link."


Although reports have surfaced of federal agents raiding medicinal marijuana distributors in California, patients with only personal needs generally don't have to worry, authorities say.


Rich Isaacson, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said small-time medicinal marijuana users aren't on their radar.


"We typically don't target people who have small amounts of drugs," he said.

Ann Arbor Police Chief Barnett Jones said most legitimate medicinal marijuana users won't have to worry about an FBI or DEA crackdown.


"Realistically, to draw the attention of those agencies, you are doing something wrong," he said.


In 1974, Ann Arbor voters decriminalized the use of marijuana, but not its sale. Possession of a small amount of marijuana is a civil infraction punishable by a $50 fine for the first offense.


Under Michigan law - which also covers University of Michigan property - marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.


Even in states where medicinal marijuana is legal, there can be repercussions for users.


Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled an employer can fire someone who tests positive for cannabis, even if the person is an approved medical marijuana patient.


Similar issues could arise in Michigan - although first, the more basic question of how patients can legally obtain marijuana will need to be answered.


"We don't know," said James McCurtis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health, which authorizes who could be admitted into the state's medicinal marijuana program. "The law doesn't provide any type of guidance."


California has shops that sell marijuana to authorized users, which are called dispensaries and don't involve doctors.


"It's really the way to go," said Nathan Sands, a spokesman for California Compassionate Coalition. "How do you have a law where you have the right to possess marijuana but not obtain it?"


But few states have adopted that system.


Talk about people selling marijuana and "people get up in arms," Sands said.

That's one reason why the Michigan law had to tiptoe around it, Ream said. The goal wasn't to address every issue, he said. It was to get the law on the books.


"The law was written to get it passed," Ream said. "It's a stop-gap measure."


Here are details of Michigan's medicinal marijuana program


  • Patients who qualify for the program must register with the Michigan Department of Community Health.
  • Registered caregivers must be 18 or older. Patients under 18 must have the consent of a parent or guardian.
  • There's a $100 annual fee.
  • Patients must suffer from a debilitating medical condition:n Cancer, glaucoma, HIV positive, AIDS, hepatitis C, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Chrohn's disease, agitation of Alzehimer's disease or nail patella.
  • A chronic or debilitating disease or medical condition or its treatment that produces one or more of the following - cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea or seizures.
  • A physician must state in writing that the patient has a qualifying debilitating medical condition. Medical doctors and doctors of osteopathic medicine are the only physicians qualified to sign the paperwork.


Tom Gantert can be reached at tgantert@annarbornews.com or 734-994-6701.

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