Two bills to watch

Larry Gabriel, Detroit Metro Times

Big things are afoot for medical marijuana in Michigan right now. At least that's what most activists who have their eyes on Lansing believe.

House Bills 4271 and 5104 are widely expected to be passed during the lame duck session before Dec. 18. I'm not a big fan of lame duck legislation in recent years when such things as a Right-to Work bill and anti-abortion legislation have been pushed through. These bills are, however, welcome for the majority of medical marijuana patients.

HB 4271 is an amendment to the original Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) that would allow so-called provisioning centers in cities that chose to have them. Any city can choose not to allow them. A provisioning center is a place where patients can purchase medical marijuana. They call them dispensaries in other states but since that word has been controversial, the folks in Lansing have changed the language. But as Shakespeare famously wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Anyone with eyes to read the signs in their area knows that dispensaries are operating. However, many hedge the issue by calling themselves compassion clubs and having memberships instead of selling to anyone who walks in the door with a state registration card. Some counties are more tolerant than others. Having HB 4271 would level the playing field and standardize the rules.

HB 5104 would allow patients to have edible products infused with marijuana oils and butters. Currently, based on a 2013 state Court of Appeals ruling, certain edible products are illegal. The need to change this is important because many medical marijuana patients do not want to smoke their medication. Also, for some ailments it's nearly impossible to get a therapeutic dose of cannabinoids –the active chemicals in marijuana – from smoking it. Higher concentrations of cannabinoids can be achieved in these infusions.

From the start, headlines and opponents of the MMMA referred to the law as "hazy," leaving municipalities and law enforcement unclear about how to enact and enforce the law. Legislators and patient advocates have been negotiating on the language of these bills for several months.

"They will make things crystal clear for everybody, including law enforcement," says Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patient Rights Association. "The NPRA has participated in multiple working group meetings in the Senate. We feel that we are all very close to being in agreement in what needs to be in the bills moving forward. Right now we don't have any consistency out there. What this does is it clarifies who can operate a provisioning center, what criteria they have to meet, and they have to be licensed. There won't be any more operating in gray area."

There was a working group meeting on Monday, when legislators presented their final language for consideration. There is some urgency for legislators and activists to get this done now. It seems like the votes are there, and with a new legislature coming in the New Year, if it's not done they'll have to start all over with new bills. Senate majority leader Randy Richardville, who supports these laws, is term-limited, and incoming leader Arlan Meekhof was the lone vote against the bills in committee. There would have to be major wooing of him to get anywhere in the next session. Incoming Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter has already said he doesn't want to deal with the issue next year.

Now is the time if this is going to be resolved without major machinations.

"I think it's going to go, in what form, no one knows yet," says Dave Brogren, president of Cannabis Patients United, who has a seat at the table in these talks. "I'm cautiously optimistic. My major concern is not screwing up the original MMMA."

The real winners in this will be patients who have not been able to easily access medication, particularly concentrated products such as the oils used by patients to control epileptic seizures.

"There's a lot of urgency coming from patients," says Schneider. "The pediatric patients especially need the liquid form. They can't be smoking marijuana. A lot of people operating outside of the law are in desperate need of legal protection as soon as possible. They need consistent access to medicine. They need strains that have been tested."

Legal access to infused products could have made the difference for police officer Tim Bernhardt. Bernhardt was a 22-year Kent County Sheriff's Dept. officer and medical marijuana patient who committed suicide early last week while awaiting sentencing for charges related to his use of pot-infused butter to make brownies. He faced up to two years' imprisonment and $25,000 in fines. It didn't have to happen. The irony is that it would have been perfectly legal for Bernhardt to grind up marijuana buds and put that in the brownies. However, making infused butter and putting that in the brownies isn't.

That's why the provision in HB 5104 is so desperately needed. If it passes, "By April 1, you will have statewide clarity for how infused products are viewed and allowed," says Jamie Lowell, chair of the Michigan Chapter of Americans for Safe Access and proprietor of Third Coast Compassion Center in Ypsilanti. "It's taken three years and been introduced twice. It's taken a lot of work from all of the stakeholders. ... It will involve local communities, and provisioning centers and testing labs will be regulated on a statewide level. "

That's a long way from growing your own, but a lot of people can't do that. In addition to getting everyone on the same page and allowing patients better access to their medicinal needs, it will hopefully lead to fewer arrests of people who believe they are following the law. In the case of Sgt. Bernhardt, it turned tragic. That's one kind of tragedy we can eliminate with some common-sense actions.

Alysa Erwin update: Erwin, who turned 18 in early October, represents a tragedy avoided. This teenager has been fighting brain cancer with hemp oil since she was 14 years old. She was in remission for two years, but after she was unable to get a consistent supply of the oil it came back with a vengeance, spreading into other areas and into her spinal fluid. Back in July, the teenager's parents were told that she had but a few weeks to live. However, she got better when her parents were able to get more medication. A recent MRI taken at the CS Mott Children's Hospital in Ann Arbor has confirmed that Erwin's cancer is abating and her tumors are shrinking. When Erwin was first diagnosed, doctors estimated she had 18 to 24 months to live with chemotherapy treatments. She stopped the debilitating chemo and went on hemp oil. She was declared cancer-free about the time she was expected to die.
Now what Alysa needs is for the medical establishment to get on board and help her and her parents in figuring out how to best use the hemp oil in her treatments.