By LAINA STEBBINS
Capital News Service
LANSING — Depending on who’s talking, Michigan’s new medical marijuana laws could streamline marijuana operations into a lucrative source of local revenue, or allow for an unnecessary expansion of the medical marijuana industry in the state.
Still another group says the laws overlook confusion about dispensaries’ legality, which has led to police raids and facilities going out of business.
The new legislation — which was signed into law in December 2016 and takes effect in December 2017 — creates three classes of medical marijuana growers, allows dispensaries to apply for licenses according to the new three-tiered class system, creates a statewide tracking system for commercial marijuana and sets a state tax on dispensaries.
One thing that will stay the same, much to the dismay of many medical marijuana providers, or “caregivers” – is a provision left over from the 2008 “Medical Marihuana Act” allowing communities to decide whether to allow medical marijuana facilities to operate in their area, and on what terms. That means cities and townships can still pass ordinances banning medical marijuana facilities in their area, even if facilities were already in existence.
“The real power is in the local units of government,” said Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson. “They have the ability to say yes or no.”
Some medical marijuana providers say the local authority is not good for business.
Paul Miller, an employee and former owner of the Muskegon Compassionate Patient Center, previously the Muskegon County Provisioning Center, said the new legislation “left out the most important part” by allowing local governments to opt out.
When communities are unfriendly toward the medical marijuana business, dispensaries and caregivers can be subject to police raids and fines until they can no longer afford to operate, Miller said.
Before April 2015, Miller’s shop in Norton Shores was more than just a smoke shop selling medical marijuana paraphernalia to patients. His business was gaining traction as one of the largest dispensaries in West Michigan, where he said there was high patient demand for quality medical marijuana.
“That’s where we drew the attention of the state police,” Miller said. “They raided [dispensaries] all over within the period of a month, and they started with us.”
In December 2016, the Norton Shores City Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting marijuana facilities within city limits. By way of that vote, the Muskegon County Provisioning Center’s existence in the city was no longer legal.
“If somebody decides to open up or run a dispensary in a jurisdiction that doesn’t allow it, they’re running an illegal operation,” Hilson said.
Miller said police confiscated everything in his shop and made him pay large fines on top of that. Many other businesses in West Michigan and across the state that received the same treatment were unable to start back up.
A shortage of dispensaries can limit patients’ access to the medicinal care they need, Miller said. These patients find themselves having to drive across the state to just a few cities that are fully supportive of medical marijuana access. Miller named Lansing, Ann Arbor and Traverse City as examples.
“What they’re trying to do is cut the caregiver right out of the program,” Miller said and “when caregivers can no longer sell to dispensaries, they sell it on the black market.”
Ann Meisch, city clerk and marijuana licensing officer for the city of Muskegon, said she anticipates making changes based on the new laws, although she will wait until December to do so. Meisch likes the legislation, although she notes that she has talked to a number of public safety officers who are against it.
“[A city] can charge up to $5,000 per dispensary or ‘grow’ – so there is that revenue stream, and there are some funds that come back to the state as well,” she said.
Meisch also supports the inclusion in the law of governor-appointed advisory boards for state policies regarding medical marijuana use, which Meisch feels “takes away some of the pressure from local municipalities.”
As prosecutor for Muskegon County, Hilson has made it a priority to make sure communities in the area are educated about the new legislation and what the changes will mean.
“Before, there really wasn’t any structure, rules or regulation outside the parameters of the” 2008 law. The new laws, Hilson said, will commercialize the industry in Michigan and change the current caregiver system.
“Up until the point of this legislation, dispensaries were illegal unless you were dispensing to your own patients,” Hilson said. Since the maximum number of patients allowed for each caregiver is just five, “nobody opens up a storefront just to dispense to your own patients, to five people.”
But now the industry in Michigan will be more commercialized, Hilson said, and “as long as you have a valid medical marijuana card, you can walk into any dispensary in any part of the state and purchase medical marijuana.”
Hilson stressed the importance of keeping a close eye on the effects of the new legislation, so in a broader sense there may be a better understanding about how commercialization of the industry – and someday, maybe even the legalization of recreational marijuana – will play out in Michigan.
Efforts are underway by groups like MI Legalize to get the legalization of marijuana for recreational use on the state ballot for 2018.
By LAINA STEBBINS