Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM

How Republican lawmakers went from reluctant to clamoring for a medical marijuana dispensary bill


Less than two years ago, state Rep.Mike Callton, R-Nashville, struggled just to get his conservative colleagues to discuss medical marijuana dispensaries.

He introduced a bill that year to allow local municipalities to regulate, or ban, dispensaries. It appeared months before a state Supreme Court ruling that effectively shut down most of them across the state.

“It was like pulling teeth just to get two co-sponsors,” Callton said, referring to his Republican colleagues’ apprehension to sign on to such an idea. At the time, he said, many saw the law itself as a way of simply getting legally high. The bill died by the end of the year. But the reluctance wouldn’t last.

“A year later, people are climbing over their seats to co-sponsor it. In just an hour, I got eight Republicans and eight Democrats to co-sponsor,” Callton said. “People were saying, ‘How can I get on that?’ One representative even said he wants to be on it because he ‘wants to be on the right side of history.’ That’s an interesting thing to say.”

In December, Callton’s provisioning centers bill had support from 87 percent of the House of Representatives, with 95 voting in support and 14 against. What the hell happened?

“A couple years ago, people thought there’s no way it was going to get 51 percent of the vote. That’s a lot of momentum,” Callton said Monday. “I definitely think we succeeded in reframing the discussion.”

That discussion, Callton said, shifted from perceiving the state law as a ruse for getting high to bringing patients with serious medical needs before lawmakers. A strategic plan behind the scenes helped, he said, as lobbyists met faceto-face with legislators. “I think that did wonders, instead of playing guitars and shouting in microphones on the (Capitol) lawn where legislators don’t hear it anyway. It was much more savvy.”

A third peg is the nationwide shift on marijuana. Two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized it. A Gallup poll from October showed, for the first time ever, that a majority of Americans (58 percent) say it should be legalized. Just last week, conservative Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his support for “policies that start us toward decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives.”

“I’ve seen this attitude now starting to prevail that it’s coming anyway,” Callton said. “It’s coming, let’s grab the bull by the horns.”

If Callton’s bill sustains the momentum from 2013, this will be the year dispensaries return, presumably in a more formal and regulated fashion. Advocates say don’t expect a proliferation of them, as was the case about four years ago. Cities such as Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit and Ypsilanti are likely to adopt local ordinances to regulate them, but “probably more will ban them outright than allow them,” said Robin Schneider, an advocate for the National Patients Rights Association. Schneider has been working closely on the Callton bill.

Along with having the “local option,” the bill prohibits provisioning centers from sharing office space with a physician and on-site consumption. It also requires product testing for contaminants such as mold, alarm systems for dispensaries, recordkeeping for up to 90 days and annual inspections that adhere to food-safety laws.

“I look at these rules as a scenario that will actually put more controls in place,” Schneider said. “I don’t think they’re quite as controversial as people would think.”

Callton’s bill was referred earlier this month to the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which is chaired by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe. A second bill, which gained even more support in the House, which would allow for marijuanainfused food products called medibles, also was referred to the committee. Callton and activists are optimistic they will pass the Senate. The Michigan Municipal League is neutral on the dispensaries bill, but Samantha Harkins, the group’s director of state affairs, said, “We like the local control aspect of it. Certainly we appreciate the fact that we are letting communities make decisions about what’s best for them.”

Repeated attempts to reach Richardville’s press secretary, Amber McCann, were unsuccessful.

She told MLive.com on Jan. 10 that she was unsure of a plan to move on those bills, but that Richardville has been “very open to having hearings on anything to do with that topic, obviously. Don’t rule that out.”

At least one state senator is still skeptical. State Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said on “City Pulse Newsmakers” in December that while he’ll “listen to the debate, I’m very concerned. I don’t want to see Lansing or any city go back to what we had before.”

The bills passed the House with support from House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, whose press secretary indicated a desire among the Republican caucus to clarify what’s allowed under the 2008 Medical Marihuana Act.

“Speaker Bolger and the House Republican Caucus are working to help implement medical marijuana laws approved by Michigan voters,” Ari Adler, Bolger’s press secretary, said in a statement. “One of the key things we’ve learned is that while many people seem to support the use of medical marijuana, they are concerned with inappropriate exploitation of that law and understand the difficulty local municipalities have had in trying to address medical marijuana centers. I think you’ll see our caucus continue to support initiatives that help bring clarity to the haze caused by the current medical marijuana provisions approved through voter initiatives.

“I don’t think it’s been a shift for the Republicans’ opinion so much as an increased focus on the need to deal with the issue,” Adler said in a followup email.

Maybe so, but at least one group that formally supported Callton’s bill — Conservative Christians for Cannabis Reform — wants Republican voices heard in the discussion.

“There was a lack in having conservative perspective in the cannabis movement,” said Joe Brown, a 40-yearold based in Grand Rapids who cofounded the organization. “What we want to do is ultimately have a taxed and regulated cannabis program … because we know it’s going to drive drug cartels out of this business and keep it out of the hands of kids.”

What is a dispensary?

Dispensaries provide a site for legal medical marijuana patients to access the drug who otherwise don’t grow it themselves. Supporters of allowing dispensaries, or provisioning centers, to operate in commercially zoned areas contend that it offers a safe, open access point for patients. Supporters also say they move the drug trade out of residential areas. Under state Rep. Mike Callton’s bill, facilities would be inspected and meds would be tested for contaminants, such as mold.