News Column

Medical Marijuana Bills Stall in Michigan Senate

February 3, 2014

By Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press

LANSING -- Supporters of medical marijuana were thrilled last year when two bills making it easier for people to buy a variety of medicinal cannabis -- including edibles -- passed the House of Representative with large bipartisan majorities.

But those cheers may turn to frustration as the two bills have stalled in the state Senate with no visible sign that they'll move anytime soon.

The bills have been assigned to the Senate Government Operations committee, which is chaired by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, who is not a fan of the bills.

"I'm going to sit on them for awhile," he said. "We don't want this ballot initiative to take over. I believe a vast majority of people who voted for it believed we were talking about prescription type of marijuana."

He's especially wary of the bill that would let communities decide whether to allow marijuana dispensaries in their towns.

"Unless it's a real strict distribution system, we're not going to take a chance," Richardville said. "At this point, I'm not in favor of dispensaries."

But the dispensaries are the key for medical marijuana users and caregivers, who, after a state Supreme Court ruling last year, are left with one option: growing their own marijuana, or buying the weed from licensed caregivers who are limited in the amount they can grow.

"We're just trying to regulate dispensaries and get them under the control of locals," said Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patient Rights Association, which advocates for medical marijuana users and caregivers. "There are a lot of municipalities that want them."

Since Michigan voters passed the medical marijuana act in 2008 by a 63%-37% margin, more than 100,000 people have been certified to use medical marijuana for a variety of ailments. More than 50,000 have become licensed caregivers, although that number slipped to 27,046 in the last year.

The two bills, HB 5104 and 4271, would:

-- Allow for the manufacture and sale of marijuana-infused products, like brownies and oils. These products help medical marijuana users, especially children, who have a hard time smoking the cannabis.

-- Let communities determine and regulate whether they want medical marijuana dispensaries -- called provisioning centers -- to operate in their communities. The bill also requires testing of the cannabis and limits the involvement of felons in the provisioning centers.

"By not voting for the dispensary bill, you're saying it's OK to have people growing their own in communities," said state Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, who sponsored the dispensary bill. "Let's say if I had cancer and got a prescription to help with my appetite. I've never grown anything successfully in my life, and it takes four to six months for it to become medicine.

"I might be gone in six months," he added. "With provisioning centers, you could immediately reap the benefits."

But many Republicans in the Senate don't want to return to the days when dispensaries overwhelmed some communities.

"Lansing had 38 licensed dispensaries. They were in stores, next to schools and next to churches that had rehab programs," said Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. "I do not favor the wild, wild west of dispensaries coming back."

Attorney General Bill Schuette is an adamant opponent of the bills and was one of the leaders in the fight to shut down dispensaries in the state.

"Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 drug, illegal under federal law," said his spokeswoman Joy Yearout. "Expanding sales will undermine public safety and put more drugs in the hands of kids."

The approach favored by the Senate, ultimately passed by the entire Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in December was a bill that would allow pharmacies to dispense the medical marijuana. But the bill would only take effect if the federal government changed the designation of marijuana from an illegal controlled substance to a legal prescription drug.

And that's not likely to happen, at least not in the near future.

"The federal government isn't going to reschedule the drug," Schneider said. "That bill did absolutely nothing to help patients, and they deserve better health care."

Democrats in the Senate generally support the two bills, said Robert McCann, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing. And there is a bill in the Senate to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

"But there's just no momentum to move on them," he said.

Matthew Abel, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws or NORML, said he fears the upcoming budget negotiations will suck all the air out of the Legislature through early summer, and elections will consume legislative attention until November.

"Every day that's going by is hurting people who don't have access to what they need," he said. "But what's happening is most people are doing what they need to do to get their medicine, and by continuing the prohibition on dispensaries, we're encouraging the continuation of the black market."

For more stories covering politics, please see HispanicBusiness' Politics Channel

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