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Patients, Towns Want Relief From State's Foggy Pot Rules


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Patients, towns want relief from state's foggy pot rules


Jackie Smith, Times Herald



5:43 p.m. EDT June 25, 2016

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There are some nights Aimee Dort said she feels lucky to get an hour’s sleep while on her regular pain medications.


The 40-year-old Kimball Township resident has a systemic disease that causes chronic pain in different parts of her body.


There are days it’s difficult to get out of bed, and others it’s too difficult to drive the distance to acquire the one medicinal solution — marijuana — that she said does help her sleep.


“If I even take too deep a breath, I scream in pain because it hurts so bad,” Dort said.


The disease is CRPS, or complex regional pain syndrome, which is hallmarked by bouts of swelling that Dort said limits regular function and has prevented her from working for more than a year.


Lifting a hand Thursday, she slowly wiggled her index finger, elaborating on the feeling.


“Just to move my finger like this will trigger a flareup where my whole arm will swell up,” Dort said. “A shirt can’t touch it. A sheet can’t touch it. Nothing without it feeling like somebody stabbing me with millions of needles.”


Dort has a bag full of prescription medication, including Cymbalta, methadone and oxycodone, and takes a small handful of pills three and sometimes four times daily.

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Aimee Dort shows a cosmetic bag she uses to hold her pill bottles Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


But her small locked box of medicinal marijuana products, she said, often gives her more relief from the pain.


It’s an option state residents first voted for in 2008 and the subsequent Michigan Medical Marihuana Act enabled patients to seek user cards and caregivers to grow for a small number of people.


Ever since, issues related to the law have circulated through the courts, lawmakers in Lansing have continued to introduce new proposals to amend the act or regulate the program, and local governments have struggled with how to interpret the issue in local ordinances — if they opt to do so at all.


In St. Clair County, more local governments have moratoriums on marijuana dispensary permits and the few that have opened have closed after getting tangled in the twisted law.


Fort Gratiot, for example, became the latest municipality to extend its moratorium on marijuana laws a full year.


“Everyone agrees that it’s a use that’s coming,” Supervisor Jorja Baldwin said of marijuana. “But what entities have control (over) is how you can regulate it just like all of our other uses.”


Meanwhile, the lack of options forces users such as Aimee Dort to travel greater distances to obtain the marijuana the state law permits her to use.


Dort said she’d hope there would be at least one dispensary nearby. The shorter the distance, she said, the easier it would be on her health.


“The issue I’m having a lot where I don’t use it a lot anymore is because of the drive,” said Dort, whose drive is more than 40 minutes. “I can’t get there all the time. It’s kind of shady because you’re in a total different area than what you’re used to.”

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Aimee Dort kisses her therapy cat Bruce while relaxing on her couch Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


And Dort isn’t alone.


Marine City resident Pat McFarland said he personally travels more than 100 miles round trip to pick up marijuana.


He is a double amputee and suffers acute nerve-related pain from a condition called neuralgia. He also has a state-issued medical marijuana card. Marijuana, he said, takes the place of Lyrica, pain medication that treats nerve and muscle pain.


Like Dort, McFarland said he’d rather obtain it from a nearby dispensary.


“I don’t see what you don’t sell it at CVS or RiteAid,” McFarland added. “You can get methadone. You can get morphine. You can get (stuff) that’ll knock a horse out. But you can’t get pot. I think it’s a matter of time before folks open their eyes at a federal level.”


And there might lie the rub.


While some government officials say they await answers from the state, Rep. Dan Lauwers, R-Brockway Township, said he doesn’t really see “anything in the works” in Lansing that would necessarily take the option for local control away.


The real issue, he said, is medicinal marijuana isn’t legally viewed like medicines you’d pick up in a pharmacy.


“It’s almost like the local governments are waiting on the state, and the state’s waiting on the feds to make this a pharmaceutical or not,” Lauwers said. “Technically, none of this should be allowed.”

Kicking the can down the road


Nearly eight years after the initial public vote favoring medicinal marijuana, the law is keeping various state agencies and officials busy.


The state’s Office of the Auditor General is assessing the effectiveness of the program’s administration of the Medical Marihuana Act — a process slated to be completed later this year.


And just searching “medical marijuana” on the state legislature’s docket of proposed bills yields two dozen results over just the last two years.


It was the introduction of bills in the state House in 2015 that brought on a moratorium in Algonac, where officials initially believed a state resolution was to come sooner than it has.


“I think the current understanding of what the legislature is talking about is that the dispensaries will be prohibited in every community unless a community specifically enacted legislation to allow them,” said City Manager Doug Alexander. “A lot of city councils, including ours, I think are hesitant to allow (dispensaries) in their community unless they’re required to do so, which if they say you must, then I think we’ll figure out a way to allow them.”




House action puts Algonac marijuana ordinance on hold


Alexander said Algonac got an inquiry last year from someone interested in opening a dispensary in the city.


In October, City Council members OK’d a 60-day moratorium while officials figured out their options.


At the time, three House bills that would create a regulatory framework were pending.


House Bill 4209 would form the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act to introduce licensing and regulation standards specifically for growers, provisioning and safety compliance centers, processors and transporters of the drug.


It would also introduce a 3 percent tax on provisioning centers, which a February 2016 impact analysis from a Hillsdale College economist, a study sponsored by the Michigan Cannabis Development Association, would generate between $40 million to $60 million in annual revenue.


House Bill 4210 would amend the existing act to more specifically define terms of medical use, usable marijuana and infused products, and other regulatory terms established.


House Bill 4287, which was tethered to 4209, meaning neither could be enacted without the other, would form the Marihuana Tracking Act for a seed-to-sale system that would follow medicinal cannabis as it is grown, processed, and/or disposed of.

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Aimee Dort takes her afternoon pills Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. Dort said she takes at least 10 pills each day to treat her CRPS. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


The bills made their way through the House before being referred to the judiciary committee, where they remain.


The dispensary inquiry in Algonac, Alexander said, has since gone away, and there’s been no other interest.


In January, the city extended its moratorium another 60 days before extending it once again this spring for a full six months.


“We just readjusted ours,” Alexander said. “We keep hearing from the legislature they’re going to do something. So we’re just kind of waiting.”


And the city manager said they’ve been “hearing something” for well more than a year.


Port Huron, Marine City and Marysville have all had moratoriums in the past.


Marine City readopted a moratorium for six months in late April.


Baldwin said Fort Gratiot’s one-year moratorium is in place because there are too many uncertainties related to zoning they need clarity on from the state.


Developing an ordinance itself isn’t the issue, she said, as she’d want to treat people’s rights to operate a dispensary like businesses in town. It’s making sure those rights don’t trump others, she said.


They also want to make sure it’s not unfairly easy to establish them, as well.


“It almost puts medical marijuana above any other laws that all other businesses are held to,” Baldwin said. “Everyone has to follow a certain baseline, and that’s why we have the ordinances in place we do.


“Like temporary outdoor sales. We don’t allow anyone to get a truck and sell day lilies outside because all they had to do was rent a truck. But either way (we want to) protect those invested in the community.”


Other communities in St. Clair County are at more exploratory stages of looking into or developing an ordinance.


Ira Township has had a moratorium on medical marijuana uses since May 2010, and Supervisor Bob McCoy said they’ve had no recent inquiries to his knowledge about opening a dispensary.


But this spring, the planning commission was asked to re-examine the subject.


“The planner has begun a review of materials prepared in the past by a previous planner,” McCoy said in an email. “Information will be presented to the planning commission at a meeting in the near future, and the planning commission will consider whether to recommend an ordinance to the township board.


After special use paperwork was filed in Port Huron Township in 2015, officials there began the process to potentially establish a medicinal pot ordinance.


And when the inquiry dead-ended, they continued the process.


The St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission considered the township’s ordinance April 20 and joined the township’s planning commission in recommending its board approve it after a few changes.




Pot grower in Port Huron Twp. dead ends


Kirk Lavigne, Port Huron Township’s building official and zoning administrator, said they kept it simple and with special land use regulations under an adult uses ordinance — referring to adult theaters, physical cultural establishments, cabarets or smoke shots, among others.


“We simply allow for a caregiver to grow it in a warehouse type situation in the industrial (zones),” he said. “It’s being regulated the same as any other adult use, though we did change the restrictions so it’s a little more restrictive for all of the adult uses.”


Initially zoning for those uses couldn’t be within 300 feet of a residence or 500 feet of a school. Now under the ordinance, however, that radius would be widened to 500 feet of a residence and 1,000 feet of a school.


It also includes environmental standards.


Lavigne said the township board could consider the ordinance July 18, though he hadn’t verified the date as of Thursday.


Cities elsewhere around the state have embraced marijuana regulations with varying degrees of support.

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Aimee Dort gets her afternoon pills Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. Dort said she takes at least 10 pills each day to treat her CRPS. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


Lansing officials OK’d a moratorium on new dispensaries this spring with plans to introduce licensing regulations for those it already has, while support for marijuana in Ann Arbor has yielded multiple medicinal dispensaries and popular legalization rallies.


A handful of dispensaries have opened up in Kalamazoo in recent years, while officials in neighboring Portage issued a moratorium while reviewing an earlier law that restricted medicinal exchange to home grow operations.


But whether the solution to the discrepancies between marijuana laws from town to town lies with each municipality or with the state is still a subject for debate.


Lauwers said he’s traveled to Colorado in the past and gotten a look at how that state tracks its legal marijuana distribution.


In Michigan, he said how medicinal products would be tracked and regulated comes down to what would help law enforcement.


“I think whether you can produce it or distribute it, I don’t know that the legislature will change (it). That’s more of a local control issue …” Lauwers said, adding any decision would likely defer to what individual communities want. “Personally, I think we should make it a pharmaceutical if you’re going to use it like a (medicinal) drug.”


The Michigan Medical Marihuana Program had more than 34,000 active caregivers and 182,000 patients in the 2015 fiscal year, according to the Office of the Auditor General, as well as roughly 104,000 applications, a fifth of which were renewals.


St. Clair County Sheriff Tim Donnellon sits on the Michigan Sheriffs Association’s board of directors and said they’ve sat in multiple meetings with legislators.


His concern, he said, is making sure they remain part of the discussion.


“Townships and municipalities can take their own actions to zone these things out, which as a law enforcement official I would certainly prefer,” Donnellon said. “(But) I think we have to have a clear set of rules out of Lansing that everyone can live with. … I do feel this is coming one way or another, it’s already here now. So it’s in everyone’s best interest if law enforcement comes to the table.”

Changing attitudes


Flipping through an album on her phone Thursday, Aimee Dort let the before and after photos of her hands and feet speak for themselves.


On one side, her limbs appeared normal in color and size; on the other, they were heavily inflamed, bulging around joints and faintly purpling her skin.

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Aimee Dort shows a before and after photo of her hand during a flare-up of CRPS Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


The latter, she said, often renders her immobile while she endures the pain.


CRPS itself ranks higher than 40 out of 50 on the McGill Pain Index, a scale first developed at McGill University in the ‘70s that’s used by physicians to measure and compare pain.


On it, CRPS leaves an assembly line of other conditions, medical scenarios and diseases behind. It tops non-terminal forms of cancer, digit amputation and childbirth.


“My whole body (hurts),” Dort said. “My teeth are breaking off right at the gum, falling out from the disease.”


Dort currently lives in Kimball Township with her 14-year-old daughter and husband and has spent her days at home since October 2014 when a doctor told her she couldn’t work.


She’d been a longtime medical assistant, but was having trouble standing or sitting for long periods.


Around that time, she was already enduring some unrelated back pain and prescribed epidurals to treat it — until her doctor twice touched a cluster of nerves in her lower back.


Severe bouts of pain soon started, and she was eventually diagnosed with CRPS. First, it was in her lower left leg before spreading to her entire body.


There are days when even Dort’s face flares up, and others the swelling is so bad it blisters her skin.


For the first year, she got by on just the pain medication she was prescribed. She first tried medical marijuana in February this year.


Dort got her certification through the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs with a doctor’s permission, but is still waiting for the user card.

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Aimee Dort said her preferred method of using medical marijuana is THC-infused hard candy, which she breaks into small pieces. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


Now, as often as she can — on Thursday, she hadn’t been in more than a month — she said she travels to Green World Wellness Center, 16060 8 Mile Road, in Detroit.


Dort said she’s tried a few methods of using marijuana medicinally. But a Jolly Rancher-like flavored candy that she crushes up to consume over time is her favorite.


Using marijuana is something, she said, she’s gotten support from her family for, and she’s accepted it for herself, too, viewing it as a natural option compared to her usual medley of prescription meds.


“For at least an hour, I can and feel normal when I have that,” Dort said of marijuana. “I’m able to do stuff that I haven’t been able to do since I was diagnosed in October of 2014.”


But on the occasions when she encounters people who don’t understand her condition right away, such as doctors in the emergency room, she said, she’s often treated like a drug addict.


Paul Tylenda, a criminal drug case attorney who’s worked high-profile marijuana cases in St. Clair County, said he’s often witnessed the stigma of medicinal pot and the impact it can have on those who wind up in court.


“Most police agencies and prosecutors have and continue to cite these cases as they always have as regular marijuana cases,” he said, not referencing St. Clair County specifically. “They prosecute the growers, they prosecute the distributors and they leave it to the patient and the caregiver to fend for themselves.


“It’s gotten more clear through interpretation of the case law, but still, the rules are not as widely and commonly understood as I think some of the law enforcement and prosecutors think they should be.”


Currently, the state’s marijuana act doesn’t entirely include rules for dispensaries, and a state Court of Appeals decision in May ruled against them in upholding the conviction of two individuals behind a Grand Rapids grow operation.


Two groups of individuals behind compassion centers have also gone to court in St. Clair County for marijuana-related crimes.

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Aimee Dort shows a medical marijuana vaporizer she uses for her CRPS Thursday, June 23, 2016 at her Kimball Township home. (Photo: JEFFREY M. SMITH, TIMES HERALD)


But Tylenda, who was an attorney named in one of those cases, said that despite the lack of clarity in local laws around the state, views of what the bigger issues are have begun to shift away from the mass pursuit of charges against those associated with medical pot.


“I’ll tell you since the inception, the fever for medical marijuana cases from prosecutors and police has gone down. We’re no longer fighting the scourge of the earth here, and I think the attitude has kind of carried through,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve seen through experience who these people actually are and they go through a (marijuana-related process), they’re not seen as criminals.”


The Lansing State Journal and Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or jssmith@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.

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