Students, others seek clarity in conflicting interpretation of medical marijuana law

By Alex Mitchell

Capital News Service

LANSING—Michigan’s Attorney General says police become drug traffickers under federal law if they return confiscated medical marijuana to patients.

But Lansing defense attorney Matt Newburg says that’s ridiculous since Michigan’s law states marijuana can be returned after verifying a patient’s information.

Such disputes are evidence of the confusion surrounding medical marijuana, leaving students and others struggling to understand a law that can seemingly change overnight.

That’s why the Michigan State University Rotaract Club, a branch of Rotary International, recently invited Newburg to discuss marijuana laws.

The way the law is enforced incentivizes cops to arrest patients, said Newburg, whose firm deals almost exclusively with criminal defense cases pertaining to medical marijuana.

“If I was a patient and they take cash and marijuana from my home and my car was paid off, they could take all of those things temporarily and I would have to file a civil suit against the state asking for my stuff back,” he said.

“If they win that civil suit they get to keep everything they found and it all gets used to fund the police.”

This isn’t the case everywhere; often police officers are just trying to do their job, he said.

“There are some law enforcement officials who kind of see the balance, but law enforcement gets paid to bust people,” Newburg said.

Terrence Jungel, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, agrees with Schuette.

“It would be a violation of federal law to return confiscated medical marijuana to a patient,” he said.

Another area of debate concerns the few dispensaries in Michigan that operate despite the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that selling marijuana is illegal.

Newburg has advised all of his clients to shut down immediately, despite disagreeing with the ruling.

“Nowhere can you find a statute that says selling marijuana is illegal,” he said. “The court of appeals said ‘well we can’t find anything that says you can’t do it, but we just don’t think you can.’ Are you serious?”

Newburg said some dispensaries feel they can remain open because the law has yet to address patient-to-patient transfers of marijuana without money. Dispensaries that are still open are probably operating with membership fees that do not require patients to pay for the marijuana directly.
“They won’t be operating for very long,” he said.

Newburg provided his opinion on the law and answered questions students had during his visit to MSU.

“I think that it’s something that is on the minds of a lot of students because it is current and it’s an issue that is affecting people’s lives, whether you agree with it or not,” said Brianna Ackers, president of the MSU Rotaract Club. “This provides clarification because nobody really knew what was going on. One day dispensaries are legal and the next they are not.”

Ackers said that she chose Newburg to speak because in addition to his defense work, he has helped towns draft ordinances to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries.

“I wanted someone who really knew what they were talking about, not someone who was lobbying for a particular side,” she said. “Obviously he is currently a defense lawyer, but he sees the big picture.”

Newberg said that his main message to the public is: “Be careful.”

“Whether or not people fall within the protections of the statute, they need to be cautious,” Newburg said.

But Newberg said that discussing and understanding this law is for more than just marijuana users and patients.

“It is a rare opportunity for students to pay attention to something that is happening in the legal world with very little precedence at all,” he said.

Students who attended the meeting said they were trying to better understand a law they have heard interpreted a million different ways.

“It seems like every week there is some new court ruling that changes the definition of medical marijuana laws,” said Ethan Thomas, a MSU student from Midland.

Thomas said he does not use marijuana, but was interested in learning why there is so much debate over medical marijuana.

“It seems pretty cut and dry to me; just enforce the law as it is written,” Thomas said. “Don’t look for loopholes or try to interpret the law in your favor.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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