Medical marijuana law hazy, law enforcement officials warn
November 30, 2008
Brittany Kinstle, The Michigan CitizenLANSING — Voters made it clear that Michigan can allow marijuana to relieve patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other debilitating medical conditions. Although the 63-37 percent ratio in favor of Proposal 1 makes the will of the public decisive, uncertainty reigns among state law enforcement agencies.
The proposal takes effect Dec. 4.
The Bureau of Health Professionals, under the Department of Community Health, will have 120 days after that date to draft and finalize rules for a medical marijuana program. The registry program will be complete by April 4.
Terry Jungel, executive director at the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, called the transition period between the effective date of the proposal and established rules a “gray area.”
“People exploit loopholes in every law, and they will in this one,” said Jungel.
James Valentine, chief of police in Lowell, said the language of the proposal leaves law enforcers with inadequate guidelines.
“I’m surprised this will take effect so soon without specific rules,” he said. “How do we operate in between?”
Envision a late-night traffic stop, he said, where cannabis is found and the driver claims that a terminally ill uncle, who is in extreme pain, left it in the car.
“We don’t want folks suddenly becoming criminals because they’re in possession of this and didn’t realize they don’t have the authority,” said Valentine.
Valentine said he’s instructing his department to continue handling marijuana cases under current state controlled substance laws.
The key to clearing the haze of medical marijuana enforcement confusion comes with a closer look at how the Proposal 1 initiative will become law.
The law vests responsibility for implementation and administration with Community Health. That requires the department to establish rules and to create a medical marijuana registry system with identification cards.
Details are not yet available, but James McCurtis, press information officer for Community Health, said rules will cover application processing fees, membership costs once a patient is registered and criteria for acquiring membership to the program.
The department will draft clear guidelines for the program, he said, so qualified patients receive identification cards and unqualified ones don’t.
“Everything is still the same in the transition phase until April 4 because there’s no program in force,” said McCurtis. “Without an established program, there’s nothing people can do except wait if they need marijuana for medical purposes.”
Joining the program won’t be instantaneous. After a patient or caregiver applies, it will take 20 days until each application is processed and approved, with an identification card issued as the last step.
Michigan joins a dozen other medical marijuana states and is the first in the Midwest to adopt such legislation. Others include California, Alaska, Maine, Nevada, Washington and Hawaii.
South Dakota is the only state where a medical marijuana ballot initiative failed to get voter approval.
The Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project and the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care campaigned for Proposal 1.
Uncertainty among law enforcement officers is understandable because they must adapt to a new system, said Dan Bernath, assistant director of communications at the Marijuana Policy Project.
“They are worrying about a problem that has never really occurred anywhere and can be solved by using the same common sense they’re required to use every day to keep streets and communities safe,” said Bernath.
Actual problems arising from the transition have been rare, he said. “It has never been a problem in other states that have passed it by ballot initiative and legislation. It’s difficult to imagine where the problem is.”
While the new law allows registered patients and caregivers to harvest and possess the drug, it doesn’t specify other ways it can be obtained. Under federal law, the purchase of marijuana seeds and plants is illegal.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) “targets criminals engaged in cultivation and trafficking, not the sick and dying,” the federal agency says.
California’s law, similar to Michigan’s, allows patients and their caregivers to cultivate medicinal marijuana.
But state laws do not prevent the DEA from targeting patients regardless of individual state law protections. Americans for Safe Access, a national legal advocacy group that supports medical marijuana therapy and research, estimates the federal agency raided more than 50 medical marijuana dispensaries in California last year.
President-elect Barack Obama has promised to end federal raids on medical marijuana patients in states with laws similar to Michigan’s.