Big Pharma Eyes Michigan Medical Marijuana Market

Katie Rucke, MintPress News

Pharmacies could fill medical marijuana prescriptions if Michigan bill passes.

Michigan may not have been the first state to legalize marijuana for either medical or recreational use, but the state is breaking ground by introducing legislation that would expand its own medical marijuana program by allowing medical marijuana sales at pharmacies.

If the legislation passes, it would open the doors for corporate interests such as Big Pharma to profit off of the medical marijuana industry, and would change how the federal government not only recognizes marijuana, but how it enforces U.S. drug policy.

Introduced by state Sen. Roger Kahn, a Republican representing Saginaw Township, the legislation, Senate Bill 660 would allow medical marijuana patients to pick up their medicine from a pharmacy, instead of having a caregiver cultivate plants for them. But the catch is that marijuana must become recognized as a Schedule II drug federally first.

Currently, marijuana is a Schedule I drug, along with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, among others, meaning that the federal government does not recognize a medical purpose of the drug at any time. Reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug, along with cocaine, Adderall, Ritalin and morphine, would mean that the government recognizes that the substance has medicinal purposes.

Kahn, a cardiologist, said he believes medical marijuana “should be held to the standard of medical safety, dosage predictability,” but says that the state’s current law, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, does neither of those things, “Yet it uses the word ‘medical predominantly or prominently in its claims.”

Michigan currently has about 129,000 medical marijuana patients. Current law allows patients to possess up to 2.5 ounces of “usable” marijuana and 12 plants. If individuals are unable to grow their own marijuana, they can have a caregiver do it for them, but caregivers can only provide marijuana for up to five patients.

Due to the limited options where a medical-marijuana patient can obtain their medicine, Rep. Mike Callton (R-Nashville) proposed a piece of legislation earlier this year that would have created dispensaries throughout the state, since “not everyone can grow marijuana or find caregivers,” but his legislation was rejected.

Under Kahn’s proposed medical marijuana extension law, doctors would be able to prescribe two ounces of marijuana to patients only if they had no drug-offense convictions, returned their marijuana ID card that was issued before the new law was implemented, and be at least 18 years old. Suppliers and participating pharmacies would also be inspected annually to ensure they are following the law.

On his website, Kahn said the proposed legislation would not take anything away from the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act — the piece of legislation that “honors the will of the people — but would give them “a pure and pharmaceutical-grade alternative to home-grown marijuana — one that accurately fits the name ‘medical.’”

“As a physician, it worries me that the constitutional provision contains no patient protections standards and in particular no standards that will protect immune-suppressed patients from molds, pesticides, metals or other contaminants commonly present in marijuana,” he wrote. “For the HIV community, this should be a serious concern. Marijuana, considered a medicine if the federal government takes action, should be available in medically sound preparations to our people, just as prescription drugs are now.

“Under this measure, facilities that produced medical marijuana would have to comply with requirements and similar to the standards with which current pharmaceutical manufacturers comply. The product would also be tested for potency which will help doctors with prescribing and dosing, and the product would be distributed through pharmacies only.

“It is your constitutional right to be able to have access to medical marijuana. All my legislation does is offer those who are worried about contaminants an option.”

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Republican representing Monroe, said he supports the legislation because Michigan needs a more “reasonable and responsible” way to regulate medical marijuana so it doesn’t end up in the possession of teenagers.

“My concern isn’t about an elderly person or a person that’s got legitimate problems trying to gain some relief from that pain,” he said. “For me, it’s about the illegitimate use and the potential for not only a bad product that’s not controlled but (it) also getting into the hands of people that are underage and aren’t at the point in their lives where they should even be considering such a thing.”


Corporate interests put ahead of patient’s rights

Not everyone has enthusiasm for Kahn’s legislation, including the Michigan chapter of the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access.

Speaking with the Associated Press, Rick Thompson, spokesman for the ASA’s Michigan chapter, said the group fears that passage of legislation such as Senate Bill 660 may force medical marijuana patients in the future to buy their medicine and not grow it themselves.

“If you’re able to grow in your basement there’s no reason to go to Walmart,” Thompson said. “You have to eliminate home-based competition in order to get a large gross to be financially solvent….That’s not what we voted for in 2008.”

Charmie Gholson, founder of Michigan Moms United, which fights for legal protections for medical marijuana users, agreed, saying “We need to grow our own medicine.” And adding, “I’m not sure why a Canadian corporation can come in and try to buy our Legislature.”

Other critics of the bill point to recent efforts to “corporatize” marijuana and point out that Prairie Plant Systems Inc., which has been the sole medical marijuana supplier in Canada for the past 13 years, has lobbied in favor of the legislation, with the help of Chuck Perricone, former Speaker of the House, who now represents Prairie Plant Systems.

According to local news reports, Prairie Plant Systems’ Michigan-based subsidiary SubTerra, which does plant research and manufacturing, has expressed interest in growing marijuana in a former Upper Peninsula copper mine.

In response to allegations that companies were seeking to profit from pot, Perricone said that despite protests from some legalization groups, this bill would actually give medical marijuana users more options when it comes to marijuana.

“This is nothing more than an option or a choice. This product was marketed to the public as medical; let’s make it medical,” he said. “The market for this is virtually untapped. The potential for the product is tremendous.”

Perricone added that although the legislation’s implementation is dependent on the federal government reclassifying marijuana, he said the chances of that happening in the coming years are likely since the government announced earlier this year it won’t prosecute in states that have approved medical or recreational marijuana.

But Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, pointed out that the Justice Department’s new stance on marijuana enforcement was riddled with Catch-22s.

While the DOJ said it did not plan to sue the two states that legalized recreational marijuana “at this time,” it said nothing about states that had legalized medical marijuana and reserved the right to sue Washington and Colorado at a later date.

With the most-recent legislation in Michigan, marijuana legalization advocates continue to be suspicious that this legislation is nothing more than a get-rich scheme for big corporations, including Big Pharma, hidden behind lawmakers concerns about the safety of homegrown marijuana, which sometimes is covered in mold and pesticides.

“Unregulated cannabis has never killed anyone. There are no illnesses,” Thompson said. “Those issues are smoke screens.”

In 2011, the medical marijuana industry alone was estimated to be worth about $1.7 billion. In Colorado, medical marijuana sales were more than $181 million in 2010 and employed 4,200 state-licensed workers.

Last Tuesday the bill passed the Senate Government Operations Committee in a 3-0 vote and is now headed for the full Senate for a vote.State legislators only need to have a regular majority vote before sending the bill to amend the state’s current medical marijuana law to Gov. Rick Snyder.

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) said she was uncomfortable supporting a bill that is dependent on congressional approval, and said she passed on voting on the bill.

“It’s an unusual step for the Legislature to act in case something that may or may not happen in the federal government,” she said. “The attorney general’s discretion is something very different from congressional approval.”


Future implications

Even if Michigan’s medical marijuana extension bill does pass, implementation of the law is dependent on the federal government removing marijuana from the Schedule I list. Reclassifying marijuana federally as a Schedule II drug would mean that doctors could legally prescribe marijuana under federal law, which marijuana advocates say is still a “slap in the face,” but would be a “monumental advance” in ending the prohibition of marijuana.

In 2010, Oregon became the first state to reclassify marijuana when the Oregon Board of Pharmacy announced it had decided to reclassify the drug as a Schedule II substance. While historic, ultimately the federal classification is what matters.

But that hasn’t stopped other state’s from trying to change how marijuana is classified. Earlier this year Washington State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle) made a formal request to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II substance, reasoning that it doesn’t make sense for marijuana to be classified as a more dangerous drug than heroin-based painkillers like OxyContin, especially since marijuana doesn’t have the harmful side effects other Schedule I drugs have.

And in July Sen. Perry B. Clark (D-Louisville) introduced a piece of legislation known as the Gatewood Galbraith Memorial Medical Marijuana Act, which would reclassify marijuana in Kentucky as a Schedule II drug so doctors could legally prescribe it to patients.

The key word is “prescribed,” since although more than 20 states have legalized medical marijuana, all medical marijuana patients currently obtain their medicine at a doctor’s “recommendation.” Marijuana’s illegal status and current classification also means that insurance won’t help cover medical marijuana-related expenses.

Neither have been successful in their attempts to reclassify marijuana yet, which is why the DEA has been able to continually raid medical marijuana dispensaries in states such as California.

If Michigan decides to not wait for the federal government to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule II drug in order for the state’s medical marijuana patients to go to a corner drugstore to pick up their medication, they may push to reclassify marijuana in the state, but most pharmacies will likely hold-off on selling medical marijuana until they are confident the store won’t be raided by federal agents.

One issue with marijuana’s federal illegal status is that all involved in marijuana sales and production are at risk of DEA raids and investigations, which is why most banks do not loan money to dispensary owners or even allow them to have an account.