CLOSER LOOK: New state regulations changing the landscape

Published 10:58 am Monday, July 3, 2017

Nearly a decade ago, voters in the state of Michigan decided to begin treating marijuana as a medicine, instead of as mere contraband.

In the fall of 2008, the people approved Proposal 1, a ballot initiative that legalized use of the drug for medical purposes, by a vote of 63 percent for and 37 percent against. In the years that followed, the law that spawned from the decision, the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, was repeatedly challenged by groups for and against the decision.

Last fall, Lansing lawmakers changed the landscape of marijuana yet again, taking the first steps to turn the substance into a full-fledged industry.

Previously, under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of 2008, the scope of who could use and produce marijuana was limited. Only people with approved medical marijuana cards could consume the substance, and could grow up to 12 plants kept inside an enclosed, locked facility. In addition, they could only possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana at any time.

People could also acquire plants from designated caregivers, who must also have received a medical marijuana card. Caregivers could grow up to 12 plants per patient, for up to five patients, and possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana per patient. In order to become a caregiver, a person must be 21 or older, and not have any drug-related felony convictions on their record.

In the years following the creation of the law, businesses designed to distribute marijuana to card holders — commonly known as dispensaries — began to spring up across the state. The Michigan Supreme Court ruled these businesses were not protected under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, though it has largely been left up to municipalities to decide whether or not to allow dispensaries to operate.

In late 2016, legislators created new laws that will allow dispensaries and larger grow operations to operate legally within the state. The legislation was passed through both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder on Sept. 21.

While the law changes some aspects in regards to use of the substance, including allowing patients to consume marijuana infused products commonly referred to as edibles, the main change is that the law opens the field to licensed businesses around the medical marijuana industry.

“Although I’m not the biggest fan of marijuana, I think this is part of a necessary framework for if and when — probably when — we legalize it statewide,” said Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Strugis, about the legislation. “I think there ought to be defined rules, and a system to oversee it.”

Among those businesses are:

• Growers — Businesses that cultivate, dry, trim, cure or package marijuana for sale to a processor or provisioning center (dispensary). These businesses may fall into one of three classes: Class A, 500 plants or less; Class B, 1,000 plants or less; or Class C, 1,500 plants or less.

• Processor — Businesses that purchase marijuana from a grower in order to extract resins or create edibles from the plants, for sale and transfer to provisioning centers.

• Provisioning center — Businesses that purchase marijuana from a grower or processor and sell it to patients or primary caregivers with a medical marijuana card.

• Safety compliance facility — Businesses that receive marijuana from a facility or caregiver and test it for contaminants and cannabinoids (chemicals within the plant that may treat medical conditions).

• Secure transporter — Businesses that securely transport marijuana between different facilities.

These businesses may only operate in municipalities that expressly allow them to do so through an ordinance. Local boards and councils may pass zoning and other ordinances specifying which kind of facilities may operate within their jurisdiction, as well as where they can be located. They may also access up to a $5,000 annual fee on them to pay for administrative and enforcement costs, though local leaders cannot specify the purity or pricing of the marijuana involved in these businesses.

These new operations cannot operate within municipalities that pass ordinances against them nor ones that take no action.

For some lawmakers, the decision to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana regulations was rooted in attempting to clarify the existing laws.

“It was an effort to bring some order, structure and limits, while at same time respecting local control,” said State Rep. Dave Pagel, R-Berrien Springs, who voted in favor of the legislation. “I think they hit that balance pretty well.”

Local impact

Leaders in several communities in the area, including Niles, Buchanan and Galien, have expressed interest in allowing some of these operations within their limits, though they have yet to come up with zoning ordinances or other requirements.

In addition to local approval, these businesses will also need to be licensed by the newly established Medical Marihuana Licensing Board, a five-member board housed within the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, whose members are named by the governor. The board will begin accepting applications from prospective license seekers beginning Dec. 15.

The creation of new laws were also celebrated by groups in favor expanding the state’s marijuana, such as the Cannabis Counsel, based out of Detroit. The law firm specializes in defending patients, caregivers and others in the medical marijuana field, and has advocated for legalizing marijuana across the state.

“We are looking forward to the expansion of medicine to patients through licensed dispensaries, edibles and other new business developments,” said attorney Matthew Abel, founder of the organization. “Hopefully, a lot of communities will use this as an opportunity to fill some empty warehouses in their areas.”

However, the new laws have been met with skepticism by some, especially among law enforcement, who are concerned that the expansion of marijuana laws may lead to increased crime, incidents of driving under the influence or usage among people under 18 years old, the current age limit for someone applying for a card (though some patients under 18 may receive a card with permission from parents and two physicians).

“Marijuana use will become more prevalent if you have dispensaries,” said Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic. “If it becomes more prevalent, then it will become prevalent with our youth.”

Next steps

An even larger shift in the laws may be on the horizon, though.

Earlier this year, a group called the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol submitted a ballot proposal for the November 2018 midterm election to the Michigan Secretary of State that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, allowing people 21 years or older to possess and use the drug. The language of the proposal has since been approved by the state board of canvassers, with the coalition now tasked with collecting more than 250,000 signatures from registered Michigan voters to get the proposal on the ballot next year.

“We believe that prohibition is a failed experiment,” said Josh Hovey, a spokesman with the campaign. “It didn’t work with alcohol and it isn’t working with marijuana. If we legalize it, we can stop wasting tax payers’ money and law enforcement’s time.”

The coalition, comprised of citizens, community leaders, businesses and organizations, is modeling the initiative after similar ballot proposals in other states, including Colorado and Washington state, taking the best processes from those systems and improving on them, Hovey said. The ballot proposes a 10 percent tax on all marijuana-related transactions, on top of Michigan’s existing 6 percent sales tax, Hovey said.

“We think this will make Michigan a model for the rest of the country,” he said.