Medicine crowing

By Andy Balaskovitz

The state Department of Community Health sees a need for more regulation of medical marijuana, but it doesnt support new proposed laws

The Michigan Department of Community Health is overwhelmed by the amount of medical marijuana applications it receives daily. It was unexpected. In response to the medical cannabis boom, the department is calling for more regulations that will control the number, scale and safety of growing facilities across Michigan.

How that will happen is anybody’s guess.

“We would like to see more regulations when it comes to growing facilities but we don’t have a specific number on how many there should be,” department spokesman James McCurtis said. “There is no magic number out there.”

While McCurtis offered no specific regulations that would benefit the law, he said there needs to be a system in place that doesn’t allow large-scale, illegal operations to happen right under law enforcement’s nose.

The “unexpected” number of applicants has created a two-to three-month backlog in mailing cards, McCurtis said.

“They (applications) are coming in faster than we can turn them out. The problem is that there are so many growers that it is hard for police officers to figure out who can legitimately (grow) and who can’t,” he said.

The department issued 7,551 patient licenses and 3,152 caregiver licenses between April 6, 2009, and Jan. 15. It receives an average of 74 applications each day.

If patients have not received a denial letter within 20 days of mailing an application, they have been approved. An application serves as a license until the card comes in the mail, McCurtis said.

It is unclear whether the department could handle more administrative work that comes with more regulations, such as facility inspections and hiring new workers, he said.

“We’re going to do whatever the law calls for us to do. Until then it is kind of like predicting the future,” McCurtis said.

Two proposed Senate bills are circulating that attempt to ease the department’s worries. However, the department does not support them in their current form on grounds that they are either unfeasible, illegal or both.

Senate Bills 616 and 618, sponsored by Sens. Gerald Van Woerkom, R-Muskegon, and Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, would issue 10 growers licenses per year, reschedule cannabis from a Schedule 1 to a Schedule 2 drug and require patients to get their cannabis from a pharmacist. The bills would also prohibit local zoning ordinances from regulating growing facilities.

Patients could no longer grow their own medicine under these bills, nor could they have personal caregivers do it for them, as their medicine would be grown in 10 large, state-inspected facilities.

While the department does not support the concept of 10,000 people growing marijuana, it also doesnt support limiting the number to 10 per year, McCurtis said.

No state has ever rescheduled cannabis. Federally it was labeled a Schedule I drug in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act. Despite numerous petitions to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency by cannabis advocates, the DEA is yet to budge on changing it to a Schedule II or less drug.

And since it is illegal for physicians and pharmacies to dispense Schedule I drugs, the department would be in charge of revoking licenses for those who did, McCurtis said.

“What they’re proposing is illegal under federal law, because pharmacists could still get their licenses revoked,” said Marjorie Russell, an attorney on the legal committee for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Russell said states generally follow federal law when it comes to the scheduling of drugs.

“Constitutionally, it is legal. But it comes with a lot of administrative work,” she said with a chuckle.

The bills’ sponsors are worried the market, due to exponential growth in license applications, is getting out of hand.

“We only want to create some protections in the system,” Van Woerkom testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Jan. 19. “We need a system we can trust.”

Kuipers said the current law does not address everything that’s being seen by law enforcement officials, but said these bills probably aren’t quite the solution.

“We’re looking for creative solutions to amend the (Michigan Medical Marihuana) Act. We have work to do on this legislation,” he said.

Greg Zarotney, an inspector with the Michigan State Police Executive Division, said his biggest concern not addressed in the current law is how patients and caregivers initially obtain cannabis.

“There is no mechanism in the law to legally obtain marijuana in the first place,” he said. “Any patient or caregiver who purchases an initial supply of seeds is committing a felony.”

A patient may have a legal caregiver from whom they get their first supply, he said, but then where did the caregiver get it?

“Law enforcement understands the spirit of the law, but this is problematic,” he said.

It is uncertain how 10 exclusive growers would be chosen among the thousands who cultivate cannabis for medicinal purposes. Meanwhile, the department is getting hundreds of new applications a week and equipment suppliers, consultants and other small businesses are popping up left and right.

Bob Zuidema, a sales representative for Grand Rapids-based Horizen Hydroponics, said the act in place certainly did not hurt his company.

“I’m sure this has been a boost in our business. We don’t know which customers are registered and who isn’t, but it has probably helped,” he said.

Horizen does business internationally and has seen steady success in the past few years, but Zuidema said it focuses mostly on working with schools and gardens, not solely the medical cannabis market. But he sees it in the competition.

“There are a lot of businesses popping up and getting into it,” he said. “I’m sure that’s their main source of business.”

As a gardening equipment salesman, Zuidema said only 10 facilities supplying the state’s patients would be enormous and bring on a host of other problems not present in the current system, such as soaring prices due to a smaller grow market and possibly federal attention.

“It would probably fill up all those GM plants that are closed down. It would be massive,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s in the vein of what voters approved last November,” he said.

Michigan is one of 14 states that allow the use of medical cannabis. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act says that a patient with a debilitating illness can possess up to two and a half ounces of marijuana or maintain a maximum of 12 plants. Should they seek assistance in growing, through a caregiver, that caregiver may tend up to 12 plants per patient with a maximum of five patients.

Because the act was a proposition voted in by the people, it requires three-quarters of the House and Senate to approve any amendments.

Greg Francisco, president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, said the law in place was a victory and there is wide support to keep it the way it is. He is optimistic these bills won’t go much further.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he said. “This is only about political points.”