Dec. 2 2015 12:21 AM

Ex-cop champions making pot shops legal

It’s like Nixon going to China.

Rick Jones is a conservative ex-cop who is leading the charge to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan. His actions may soon allow the operators of the state’s hundreds of dispensaries — Lansing has about 40 —to breathe easier instead of wondering if they’ll get raided.

Jones is a to-the-right Republican former Eaton County sheriff. But as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is going to lead the floor fight to put dispensaries back on the right side of the law after the courts ruled four years ago they were not. The initial Appeals Court decision, subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, called them a “public nuisance” and said the 2008 ballot initiative that legalized medpot didn’t legalize dispensaries. Hundreds shut down, but some braved it and more have sprung up, including in Lansing, where police look the other way, taking their cue from a pro-pot mayor, Virg Bernero.

Jones expects a package of bills to do just that to move forward as early as Tuesday, potentially setting up a full Senate vote soon after.

Jones is unsure how quickly Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R- West Olive, will move the bills. Meekhof’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Small differences in the Senate version will require House approval before the package can go to the governor. One medical marijuana advocate expects minor changes will be made in the Senate involving transporting products and capping dispensary licenses to resolve police concerns.

What Gov. Rick Snyder will do is a larger uncertainty. Jones said a “big factor” will be in getting the Michigan State Police to stay neutral on the bills rather than outright oppose them: “I know the State Police will weigh heavily on his decision,” Jones said of Snyder.

Snyder spokesman Dave Murray would only say the bills will be subject to a “thorough review” before Snyder decides.

But Jones thinks the time has come to legalize dispensaries, and he has the credentials to make that happen. His committee held a hearing in November and plans a second on Tuesday. Moreover, his status as a former sheriff is a big factor in turning around law enforcement organizations, whose opposition sunk similar legislation last year.

Large parts of the state have no dispensaries, and those that are open do so at risk. Drug enforcement task forces in West Michigan raided dispensaries as recently as last month.

“It’s all quite dangerous for folks involved in this,” Jones said. “I think coming up with a system that allows growers, transporters and dispensaries is much better.”

What’s in the bills?

The Republican-sponsored three-bill dispensary package — HB 4209, 4210 and 4827 — creates` a “seed-to-sale” tracking system and clarify uses of marijuana-infused products, like edibles or tinctures.

The proposed rules set up a system by which commercial growers are licensed to grow marijuana for dispensaries. A third-party “secure transporter” must store and transfer medical marijuana, acting as a middle man between growers and dispensaries or processing centers, which could produce marijuana infused products to be sold at dispensaries.

A key provision allows municipalities to authorize licenses for these various businesses, or what’s known as the “local option.”

The rules create three tiers of commercial grow facilities, allowing for up to 500, 1,000 or 1,500 plants.

A five-member state Medical Marihuana Licensing Board, appointed by the governor, would administer the law and set licensing fees. HB 4209 also would set a 3 percent excise tax on the gross retail income of each dispensary. That revenue would be sent to local units of government, law enforcement and the state General Fund. Products sold at dispensaries would require testing at licensed “safety compliance centers.”

HB 4827 is tie-barred to the commercial growing and dispensaries bill to create a detailed tracking system from seed to sale. It would cover “all sales and refunds; plant, batch, and product destruction; inventory discrepancies; loss, theft, or diversion of products containing marihuana; and adverse patient responses,” according to a House Fiscal Agency report. The system — which could be accessed by the police — would also track patient purchase limits and flag purchases in excess of authorized limits. A patient can posses up to two-and-a-half of marijuana before overstepping legal limits.

Finally, a third bill to clarify the legal use of edible pot (think laced brownies or extracts) would require 75 percent approval by the Legislature because it amends the voter-initiated Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. The bill clarifies ambiguities around quantities and forms of marijuana in which people are protected from arrest.

Police, advocate concerns

The proposal to tax and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries has for years been a steady project of Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville. It came close to passing during last year’s lame-duck session, only to be blocked due to law enforcement concerns.

As proposed, the bills would take effect 90 days after enactment, and interested parties could apply for licenses 180 days after that. The House passed the measures easily. Possible Senate changes may include limiting the number of growers’ and dispensary licenses that are issued, based on concerns from police organizations and other advocates.

Jones and Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patients Rights Association in Michigan, expect “minor changes” in the Senate to resolve those concerns.

Schneider said advocates are still concerned that Senate amendments will set high barriers of entry into the various businesses for those who couldn’t afford it.

Schneider also said a point of difference between advocates and police is that the bills appear to say nothing about what caregivers should do with “overages,” or marijuana grown in excess of their patients’ limit.

Jones said if growers are concerned about their overages, they should consider getting a commercial growers license as allowed under the plan.

Schneider, whose group supports the plan, said the rules ultimately create an either/or situation for caregivers: They can either continue growing for their five patients and destroy excess marijuana or turn to commercial growing, where they’d have to forego their right to grow directly for patients. Right now, many caregivers sell their overages to dispensaries, which is “technically not legal,” she said.

Police organizations even suggested eliminating the caregiver-patient model since patients would be able to get products at dispensaries.

But Jones said that would be unlikely to get the necessary three-fourths vote of the Legislature and “there is absolutely nothing in the legislation that would do that.”