LANSING (WWJ/AP) – Prompted by an abundance of pot-oriented shops, confused law enforcement officials and numerous legal disputes, some Michigan lawmakers are planning a major push to change or clarify a voter-approved state law allowing marijuana to be used for medical purposes.
New bills are being drafted for introduction to the state Legislature within the next few months, joining some that already have been introduced. The bills would require stricter doctor-patient relationships before a patient could get authorization to use the drug and likely cut down on the number of marijuana dispensaries in the state.
The law, approved by Michigan voters in 2008, has sparked confusion as local governments, police, patients and businesses try to sort out exactly what’s legal. Some of the legislative changes proposed since would require support from three-fourths majorities in both the Republican-led House and Senate.
“The intent here is to define and fill in the holes,” said Rep. John Walsh, a Republican from Livonia and one of the main architects of the upcoming legislative package.
“Today, there’s not enough definition in the law,” said Rep. Richard LeBlanc, a Democrat from Westland. “Law enforcement needs some definition so they know what’s legal and what’s not.”
Lansing’s Michigan Avenue, within a few miles of the state Capitol, offers a glimpse of why some lawmakers say the medical marijuana program has spiraled beyond the voters’ intent of offering pain relief to patients with debilitating conditions. More than a half-dozen, easily visible storefronts connected to medical marijuana have opened in a two-mile stretch within walking distance of schools, churches and homeless shelters.
“Dispensaries – pot shops, drug houses, whatever you want to call them,” said Attorney General Bill Schuette, who worries the state law has so many holes it allows drugs to get into the wrong hands . “This law has been hijacked by drug dealers who want to make money, line their pockets, by selling drugs and making a huge profit.”
Sixteen states have legalized the medical use of marijuana, with programs in various phases of development. Other states have seen similar confusion over their laws, including raids and debate over local regulations in California and disputes over which doctors can recommend medical marijuana in Colorado.
Michigan has issued more than 80,000 patient registrations for medical marijuana. Patients can possess up to 2 ounces of usable marijuana and have up to 12 plants kept in an enclosed, locked facility – or have a registered caregiver grow the drug for them.
Business owners contend dispensaries and collective growing facilities are legal because nothing in the law prohibits them. Some local communities have decided dispensaries should be illegal or heavily zoned because state law is largely silent or unclear, and federal law continues to ban possession of the drug. Court cases that could provide a precedent-setting legal interpretation are pending, and new legislation is expected to include zoning guidelines.
Toni Tripp, a caregiver and owner of a medical marijuana business in Lansing, says state law should be strengthened to make sure caregivers distribute the marijuana to their patients as required. But she worries state lawmakers might go too far and restrict access to medical marijuana for patients and legitimate caregivers who do follow the rules.
“I’m scared they’re going to make it harder on people like us,” Tripp said. “If they close down shops that are really trying to abide by the law, where are these patients going to go?”
The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear two criminal cases about medical marijuana, including one in which it will consider just what’s meant by keeping marijuana in an “enclosed, locked facility.” A second case could touch on the doctor-patient relationship required to get authorization to use the drug for medical purposes.
The relationship required under the law is vague, critics say, and should be strengthened to prevent certifications from being issued without examinations. They point to the case of a Saginaw doctor accused of certifying about 1,900 people for medical marijuana during visits that cost at least $150. Investigators say she didn’t do thorough exams.
Caregiver rules are so muddled the state doesn’t even have a count of how many are working with patients. Critics of the current system want to prohibit felons from being certified as caregivers.
Schuette wants to make it a felony for physicians to knowingly give false certification of a patient’s debilitating condition and to knowingly submit false information on an application for a patient or caregiver card. Other developing ideas call for cracking down on drivers who get behind the wheel with marijuana in their system.
“Changes are long overdue,” said Michael Thomas, the prosecuting attorney from Saginaw County. “It’s left police officers, it’s left prosecutors with a lot of confusion over what the law is.”
Some police agencies want a better system to verify the authenticity of authorization cards, concerned that it’s difficult to tell fakes from legitimate ones.
“We’ll be proposing a number of different legislative fixes because we see now that this law was designed for those who had a chronic illness, maybe an end of life pain management problem, but it’s being exploited and used and hijacked by those who want to make money off selling pot, and that’s against the law in the state of Michigan,” said Schuette.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.