IN A STATE THAT HAS WEATHERED SOME DEVASTATING ECONOMIC HITS OVER THE PAST 30 YEARS, A THRIVING CANNABIS INDUSTRY HAS TAKEN ROOT UNFORTUNATELY, POLITICIANS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT ARE NOW TRYING TO DISMANTLE MICHIGAN’S MEDICAL MARIJUANA PROGRAM. BUT THE STATES TOUGH, SAVVY ACTIVISTS ARE FIGHTING BACK.
So much has been written about the tragedy of Detroit. Every manner of urban ill has beset this once-great city: massive unemployment, blight beyond comprehension, rampant crime, decades of political corruption. Under-standably, many of the residents have fled: Over the past 10 years, Detroit’s population has plunged 25 percent and now stands at just over 700,000—in a city that once num-bered close to two million.
But pride still exists here. People remember. Detroit was once a wealthy, vibrant city, the world’s auto capital, a workingman’s town with great sports teams. Witness Michigan’s reaction to last year’s Super Bowl commercial, which amounted to an honest, gritty love letter to the city. It featured Eminem driving a Chrysler down Woodward Avenue. When he gets out of the car and declares, “This is the Motor City, and this is what we do,” many residents of the city—and the state—were moved to tears.
Detroit may be the most tangible evidence of the severe economic downturn that Michigan has undergone—in which manufacturing’s share of the state’s economy has shrunk to 18.4 percent—but the psychological toll on people throughout the state has been profound. So this powerful commercial extolling the greatness of Detroit—and Michigan itself—resonated deeply in Great Lakes country.
“It’s a matter of hope,” says Steve Audish, who once owned and managed nightclubs and grocery stores in Detroit. “Even though this city has fallen apart, our hearts are still here.”
Steve and his partner, Bob Bidawid, oper-ate the Helping Hand Compassion Club in Detroit. It’s a popular medical-marijuana facility located in a building that the two have transformed from a dilapidated, abandoned storefront into a sleek, welcoming community hub that provides both medicine and grow equipment. It’s one of approximately 30 medical-marijuana dispensaries Located in the Greater Detroit area. Statewide, there are over 200.
“Spirits are up,” says Bidawid. “True De-troiters believe that something is going to hap-pen. Maybe medical marijuana is the way to go. Maybe it’s the new automotive industry.”
Well, maybe someday. But there’s little doubt that the introduction of a medical-mari-juana economy has spiked optimism and caused people to dream again. In the 2008 election, 63 percent of voters approved med-ical marijuana statewide, and there was no delay in getting the program up and running. The new law specified that patients could cul-tivate 12 plants and possess 2.5 ounces. Fur-thermore, registered caregivers could legally grow medicine for up to five patients. The law itself is both specific and wide-ranging, per-mitting a broad spectrum of patients to legally ingest cannabis medicine. The law reads in part: “‘Medical use’ means the acquisition, possession, cultivation, manufacture, use, in-ternal possession, delivery, transfer, or trans-portation of marijuana or paraphernalia relating to the administration of marijuana to treat or alleviate a registered qualifying pa-tient’s debilitating medical condition or symp-toms associated with the debilitating medical condition.” But as we all know, life is never easy in matters related to marijuana.
Even though Michigan enjoyed a seemingly clear path to creating a new, homebased industry that would result in thousands of jobs, State Attorney General.
Bill Schuette filed court papers this year in support of prosecutors in Oakland and Isabella counties who, in separate cases, have sought clarification of (read: challenged) Michigan’s medical-marijuana law. The law clearly states that unregistered users ar-rested for marijuana crimes are entitled to pres-ent a medical marijuana defense. But Schuette insists that the law covers only qualified patients and caregivers who are formally registered with the Michigan Department of Community Health.
Additionally, Schuette contends that dispen-saries cannot legally operate because the law does not specifically address them. But a court in Isabella County has already ruled that, because dispensaries are not expressly addressed by state law, they must be permitted. Schuette is supporting an appeal of that decision.
Because he was an ardent opponent of the medical-marijuana bill when it was introduced on the ballot in 2008, activists were rightfully worried when Schuette decided to run for office. He was subsequently elected, riding in on the Republican tsunami of 2010, when Michigan, a traditionally liberal state, dumped Democrats statewide in frus-tration over a feeble economy and a high jobless rate. From the moment he took office, Schuette began sniping at the state’s medical-marijuana law, the worst incident being in January of this year, when he completely bent over for the DEA. Last June, the DEA had subpoenaed the medical records of those registered in Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Program. However, the De-partment of Community Health, which oversees the program, refused to comply, citing patient confidentiality and the fact that state employees could be prosecuted for disclosing such informa-tion. Unless a court order could be produced, the DEA wasn’t going to get what it wanted.
On December 22, the DEA filed a petition to enforce the June order. Two weeks later—mere days after being sworn in—Schuette replied to the subpoena, stating that if it were upheld, he would-n’t contest a court order permitting the DEA to ex-amine the confidential medical records of his own state’s constituents. (In June, that court order was granted, but the scope of the DEA’s request was narrowed considerably.)
For Jamie Lowell, co-owner of the 3rd Coast Compassion Center in Ypsilanti and an energetic lobbyist, Schuette’s conduct is appalling. “This guy allows the Feds to come in and walk all over our initiative,” he says. “As attorney general, he should be fighting on our behalf.”
But that doesn’t look likely, so the dispensary owners must fight for themselves. Lowell says, “Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to pro-ceed. We’re a new industry, so it is paramount that we employ the highest standards and self-regulate.”
3rd Coast Compassion Center was the first dispensary in the state and is widely recognized as a leader in the industry and in the political process itself. Darrell Stavros oversees the day-to-day management of the facility, while Lowell bounces back and forth from Lansing, the state capital. The compassion center itself is a former funeral home, but now it houses the Magic Oven medibles kitchen, classrooms for cultivation in-struction and legal advice, budtender rooms and various administrative offices.
3rd Coast is also one of the powers behind the Michigan Association of Compassion Clubs (MACC), an organization founded in response to the raids and court challenges. MACC has called upon the dispensaries of Michigan with the best record of operation to join forces and become part of its stalwart lobbying team.
Currently, MACC has 15 members. Those who join pay a $1,000 initiation fee and a further $300 monthly. It’s a war chest, but this is no guild fighting simply to protect its members’ businesses. Stavros says, Our fight is to maintain core rights. That means we fight for patients—they’re the ones at risk. We fund individual cases, and we have a 100 percent success rate where either charges have been dropped or rulings have been changed.”
MACC has also filed an amicus brief to stop the DEA’s pursuit of patient records. (The final ruling is still pending.) Essentially, MACC—with some assistance from the ACLU—has been the sole defender of the castle.
Ryan Basoure, who manages Capital City Caregivers in Lansing, is also a member of MACC. As you enter town and drive down Michigan Avenue, several dispensaries line the street. In the distance, the Capitol building looms at the avenue’s end. It’s both heartening and menacing. Here in the state capital, dispensaries operate openly right on the main drag, supported by Mayor Virg Bernero. Yet other politicians in town have these cannabusinesses in the crosshairs.
“Attorney General Schuette got into the office on the backs of the Tea Party,” Basoure notes. “The Tea Party defines itself as a political move-ment that supposedly supports state sovereignty and lower taxes. But what did Schuette instantly do when he took office? Instantly, he folded to the Feds—then [the Michigan GOP] taxed the pen-sions of retired folks. He’s protecting his own in-terests. Remember, 27 percent of Michigan’s state budget is earmarked for corrections—pris-ons, guards, law enforcement, prosecutions. There are huge lobbying organizations trying to keep corrections number one.” (With that in mind, guess what the most common probation violation is? Testing positive for pot—which is obviously great for the corrections business.)
“Follow the money,” says Charmie Gholson, editor of The Midwest Cultivator, a Michigan-based cannabis samen trade journal. “Michigan has some of the most egregious forfeiture laws in the country. Seizing property is how law enforcement boosts their budgets.”
According to Policing for Profit, a study released last year by the Libertarian, nonprofit Institute of Justice, “government at every level is in on the take and the problem is growing.” The report demonstrates that legal procedures make civil forfeiture relatively easy for most governments and difficult for many property owners to fight. In effect, a person’s property is “arrested,” often without actual charges being filed. And even if the property seized wasn’t purchased or used in relation to criminal activity, it’s still up to the owner to provide proof of this fact.
“Our results show that law enforcement is acting in pursuit of profit,” says Marian Williams, assistant professor of government and justice studies at Appalachian State University and a co-author of the report. “Agencies are using federal law as a loophole to circumvent more restrictive and less profitable state laws,” Welcome to Michigan, which received a D-minus in the study.
Most forfeiture cases are drug-related, and most of those involve marijuana. However, as Jamie Lowell points out, “our medical-marijuana law put a big wrinkle in efforts to get that money.”
But that hasn’t stopped Oakland County, which has ignored the law and pursued medical-marijuana cases aggressively. A number of paramilitary-style raids have been conducted, and innocent patients have had their possessions looted by the cops. As an example of their zeal, county drug agents even created phony state medical cards to gain access to Clinical Relief, a compassion center in Ferndale.
The county maintains that if caregivers or patients are not in compliance with the law, they lose their ability to make a medical-marijuana defense. (And even something as trivial as an unlocked growroom door can qualify as noncompliance.) Moreover, prosecutors are fighting even the mention of the term “medical marijuana” in court, which has resulted in busloads of protesters arriving on court days.
What’s been lost in the battle is the good news that dispensaries produce. Jobs are being created, properties are being rented or bought again, and ancillary businesses like grow shops are proliferating. Most importantly, 50,000 people are benefiting from good medicine. In Lansing, where Capital City Caregivers operates, Michigan Avenue used to be a sad, scarred stretch of road. Ryan Basore says his building was vacant for eight years. “There was 60 percent vacancy when we opened,” he recalls. “Now there’s 15 percent vacancy. Restaurants are opening and, on Michigan State home-game days, this neighborhood is booming again.”
The top dispensaries claim that only they can screw up the program—and dispensaries are now under the microscope. As a result, MMAC encourages the industry to be not just po-litically involved, but also—and more importantly—to conduct itself responsibly and stay in strict compliance to protect this precious law.
The best dispensaries have invested considerable time and energy in creating the proper venue for medical consultations. These facilities aren’t sterile; instead, they’re clean and thoughtfully decorated—private, yet still inviting. It’s in their best interests to carry top strains that are safe and free of contaminants. Most dispensaries deal only with known, reliable cultivators or else operate and monitor their own grow operations. But the daily parade of sellers bringing their wares for possible purchase never ends. When asked how often these kinds of transactions occur, dispensary owners and budtenders respond that they happen very rarely—unless the medicine can top what a dispensary is currently offering, what’s the point?
But when they do happen, it’s for one reason: profit, pure and simple. As a result, unscrupulous dispensaries—the quick-buck outfits—can impede or endanger the success of the industry as a whole.
Many in the industry have been especially perturbed by out-of-state growers arriving at their shops and offering weed at bargain-basement prices. The sellers are predominantly from California and Oregon selling outdoor crops. Last fall and winter, pot was being offered at $2,200 to $2,500 per pound, whereas Michigan growers commonly sell pounds in the $4,000 range. Obviously, there’s no quality control under these circumstances, since no one can know how the cannabis was cultivated—and the savings are rarely passed on to consumers. As a result, dispensaries that buy out-of-state marijuana are destabilizing their own industry and putting legal caregivers out of work.
Some activists say the best thing to do right now is to hang tight, do everything by the book, and hope for favorable clarifications from the state in the future. But Chuck Ream, one of Michigan’s most articulate and clearheaded activists, is adamantly opposed to such a submissive posture.
“There is no holding pattern,” he states firmly. “Our only recourse is to defend the law. The only thing we can do is blast straight ahead. The legislature hasn’t acted yet; we have time to get entrenched on the ground.”
Ream is a former kindergarten teacher of 33 years. He graduated magna cum laude from law school but credits marijuana with putting him on the proper path. He was responsible in 2004 for keeping Ann Arbor’s legendary pot-possession law (in which busts result in a mere $25 fine) on the books, and he now runs MedMar A2 Compassionate Health Care, a spacious, airy dispensary in Ann Arbor that is also a member of MACC. In this progressive city, home of the University of Michigan, Ream has led the charge in striving to maintain the integrity and spirit of the state’s law here.
In May, Ann Arbor’s City Council actually decided against requiring medical-marijuana facilities to apply for licenses. The number of dispensaries in the city has been capped at 20, but for those who want to grow outside their homes—such as at compassion centers—licenses will not be required, nor will there be zoning restrictions. City Council members even stated that they would like to see even less regulation of medical marijuana. Ream hopes to see other places follow Ann Arbor’s example and make safe access to medical marijuana a part of their city charter, as Ann Arbor has done. Of course, it helps to have a coalition of outstanding local dispensaries working to accomplish this, and Ann Arbor boasts many—such as the homey Ganja Mama’s Tree City Health Collective, or the tightly run C-4 dispensary, or the well-appointed compassion center known as OM of Medicine, located right on Main Street.
But the opposition to the state’s medical-marijuana law remains formidable. The Michigan Association of Municipal Attorneys has even encouraged cities to file ordinances rejecting medical marijuana—in effect to break the law, which certainly keeps attorneys in business. Also, sitting judges are deliberately obfuscating the issue, stating that the law itself is confusing, that voters were misled, and that the Michigan State Supreme Court is the only entity capable of figuring things out—which, obviously, makes patients wary and leaves them wondering: “Am I legal or not?”
Ream calls it pure chicanery, an „anti-democratic, totalitarian power grab” designed to maintain a status quo that criminalizes cannabis users.
“One of the strongest reasons we should end the Drug War is that the effectiveness of law enforcement in solving and preventing crimes has diminished over the past three and a half decades,” he says. “The closure rates for all major crimes—aggravated assault, rape, robbery, murder—have been severely compromised. Instead, law enforcement is chasing people around for their personal behavior.”
Over the course of two and half years, Michigan’s medical-marijuana program has laid down strong foundations, and now it strengthens itself. Politicians who underestimate the resolve of the cannabis industry are becoming reacquainted with the will of the people and what it means. People want to work. People want to improve their lives. Cannabis offers hope on both fronts.
“We are here to stay,” says 3rd Coast Compassion Center’s Darrell Stavros. Sounding a bit like that rapper in that Super Bowl commercial, he adds: “This is what we do.”