|By Andy Balaskovitz|
A District Court ruling and a statewide decriminalization/legalization effort are welcome news for Lansing-area cannabis advocatesIf District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr.’s ruling last month dismissing criminal charges against four local dispensary employees provided anything, it was a little piece of mind.
Not just for those employees, no doubt, but for other Lansing-area cannabis advocates and dispensary owners who now perceive at least one sympathetic judge who sees room in the state medical marijuana law for ways to legally operate dispensaries. What effect Clarke’s ruling will have, such as the possibility of some former dispensaries reopening after shutting down in August 2011, remains to be seen.
“There is potential value to” the ruling, said local attorney Matthew Newburg, who thinks the “outcome is surprising.”
“It is a very big opinion — the effects are going to be felt in some circuits,” Newburg said. However, Newburg — who is representing defendant Brandon McQueen in a high profile dispensary case before the state Supreme Court with local attorney Mary Chartier — isn’t advising business owners to reopen their dispensaries until the outcome of McQueen’s case is decided.
In Clarke’s HydroWorld case, four employees — Rick Gouin, Daniel Corbin, Michael Lewis and Zebediah Dewey — were charged with allowing undercover officers to purchase cannabis. The state Attorney General’s Office said the officers didn’t have valid state-issued medical marijuana cards at the time of the purchase.
On multiple occasions between May and September 2011, undercover officers bought 1/8 oz. of cannabis at HydroWorld’s locations at 700 W. Barnes St. and 4513 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Lansing. (The MLK location has since closed, but a second HydroWorld operates at 5300 S. Cedar St. Two others operate in Jackson and Grand Rapids.) The attorney general cited the state Appeals Court ruling on McQueen from August 2011, which effectively closed nearly all 41 dispensaries that once operated in Lansing by ruling patient-to-patient sales do not qualify as medical use.
In his opinion, Clarke said that the HydroWorld employees were authorized to sell to the three undercover officers because — even though they didn’t have state-issued registry cards — they had recommendations signed by physicians. He cited the May state Supreme Court ruling in People vs. Kolanek that patients don’t need a state-issued registry card to qualify, only a physician recommendation. Moreover, Clarke said the HydroWorld employees “performed a variety of functions from classes on growing marihuana to obtaining useable marihuana,” which falls under the medical use definition in the state statute. Unlike the McQueen case, in which Clarke wrote the appellate court took a “myopic view” of the services dispensaries provide, the HydroWorld employees were doing more to serve patients than merely selling cannabis.
“To suggest one can assist in using or administering marihuana in accordance with the MMMA and that this would not include obtaining marihuana would be an absurd conclusion,” Clarke wrote.
The Attorney General’s Office has not decided whether it will appeal, though Denise Hairston, who represented the HydroWorld employees, is “almost positive” it will.
In an interview, Clarke said he didn’t know what effect his ruling will have. “My ruling is based on facts presented over a couple sessions. I just don’t take it any further than that.”
While Newburg is advising against it, Hairston thinks “it’s possible” that new dispensaries may open in town based on this decision. She said Clarke’s ruling in favor of “service centers” is the “first step for Lansing.”
At least eight dispensaries are open in Lansing: the two HydroWorld locations; Helping Hands at 4100 S. Cedar St.; CA of Lansing at 2201 E. Michigan Ave.; Alternative Medicine at 930 E. Mt. Hope Ave.; Star Buds at 2012 N. Larch St.; The Herbal Connection at 4314 S. Cedar Street; and Green Leaf Clinic at 900 W. Holmes Road.
Local advocate Robin Schneider, spokeswoman for the National Patients Rights Association, said Clarke’s ruling “certainly helps to set the tone for safe access and dispensaries” in Lansing. “It lets us know we do have judges in Ingham County who support that patients need access to medicine.”
Schneider said ultimately, all eyes are on the McQueen case to see whether dispensaries will be a safe point of access for patients.
A manager at Star Buds hopes more dispensaries come back in light of Clarke’s ruling.
“I would like more, safer dispensaries in Lansing,” said Ashley, who declined to give her last name. Ashley has worked at Star Buds — which offers doctor certifications, prepared cannabis and cannabis testing — since July. She said she’s “happy” about Clarke’s ruling. “I wasn’t afraid before — now I’m really not concerned,” she said of operating a dispensary in town.
Rocky Antekier, owner of Helping Hands, agrees that it “wouldn’t hurt to have a decent amount” of dispensaries come back, though the previous 41 is “probably too many.”
“I was happy for the (HydroWorld) employees — they shouldn’t be the ones penalized,” Antekier said. “If they were doing their job, they were just doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Meanwhile, media reports from the weekend say efforts are underway to get the Legislature to take up bills either decriminalizing or legalizing small amounts of cannabis statewide.
MIRS, the Capitol newsletter, reported Friday that supporters will first try with a Democrat and maybe a “Republican or two” to introduce legislation. However, it’s likely to take a statewide ballot initiative to see any progress next year, MIRS reported.
Charmie Gholson, founder of Michigan Moms United, an organization “working to create drug task force accountability,” said the legalization movement is already underway in Michigan.
“This is no secret. Yes, we’re going to launch a legalization effort,” she said. Gholson did not offer specifics about how groups would do so and said there is no coordinated effort at this point to either draft a bill or start a petition drive.
It comes on the heels of successful ballot initiatives in Washington state and Colorado that legalized cannabis for recreation use. Also, measures passed last month in Detroit, Ypsilanti, Flint and Grand Rapids that either decriminalize or legalize small amounts of cannabis, or make it the lowest priority for law enforcement. Kalamazoo approved a measure allowing for three dispensaries to be licensed and regulated by the city.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” Gholson said. “People are coming out now.”