Michigan legislators propose pharmacy marijuana sales

David Eggert, Associated Press

Five years after Michigan voters legalized marijuana use for medical purposes, lawmakers say it's time the drug is brought into the fold of the health care industry so patients can buy it at their corner pharmacy.

A bill approved last week by a Senate committee would pave the way for the production and sale of "pharmaceutical-grade" cannabis. The measure essentially would create a second medical pot system in the state, one that proponents say would not interfere with the existing law under which patients can grow their own pot or obtain it from caregivers.

"Marijuana, if it's to be medical marijuana, should be held to the standard of medical safety, dosage predictability," said Sen. Roger Kahn, a Saginaw Township Republican and cardiologist. "Our medical marijuana (law) does neither of those. Yet it uses the word the word 'medical' predominantly or prominently in its claims."

Kahh is sponsoring legislation, now pending on the Senate floor, to move marijuana from a Schedule 1 drug in the same category as heroin and other drugs with no accepted medical use to a Schedule 2 drug like cocaine and morphine that are addictive but also used for medicinal purposes. The reclassification could not occur without federal approval.

Such a reclassification would lay the groundwork for pharmacies to dispense marijuana. The legislation would allow doctors to recommend that patients be issued "enhanced" pharmaceutical-grade cannabis cards differing from those now carried by 129,000 residents.

To get a card, the patient could not have been convicted of a drug offense, would have to surrender his or her ID card issued under the existing law and could not be under 18 years old. Suppliers and participating pharmacies would undergo annual inspections.

Critics of the bill include backers of the current system who are suspicious of efforts to "corporatize" marijuana growing. Prairie Plant Systems Inc., which has been the Canadian government's sole supplier of medical marijuana for 13 years, is lobbying for the legislation with help from former House Speaker Chuck Perricone. Its Michigan subsidiary, SubTerra, does plant research and manufacturing in a former Upper Peninsula copper mine and wants to grow marijuana there if it can secure various approvals.

"If you're able to grow in your basement there's no reason to go to Walmart," said Rick Thompson, spokesman for advocacy group Americans for Safe Access-Michigan, which fears future court rulings could effectively negate the current law and force people into the new system. "You have to eliminate home-based competition in order to get a large gross to be financially solvent. ... That's now what we voted for in 2008."

Legislators need only a regular majority to send the bill to Gov. Rick Snyder instead of three-fourths support in both the House and Senate to amend the 2008 law, he said.

Yet lawmakers are interested in learning more about operations such as Prairie Plant Systems.

Rep. Mike Callton, a Nashville Republican who introduced legislation in February to create marijuana dispensaries after the Michigan Supreme Court slammed the door on the shops, has said not everyone can grow marijuana or find caregivers and he is concerned about sick people not having access to the drug.

The state's marijuana law says people with certain illnesses, such as cancer or chronic pain, can possess up to 2.5 ounces of "usable" marijuana and keep up to 12 plants in a locked place. A caregiver also can provide marijuana to as many as five people.

Callton planned to visit Prairie Plant System's headquarters in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on Friday to learn more and declined to comment on the Senate bill until returning.

Backers of a new system say they are concerned about safety, including whether pesticides are being used to grow marijuana. It's also prone to mildews and molds, though defenders of the caregiver-to-patient system say those concerns are overblown and home-grown marijuana is safe.

Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Monroe Republican and supporter of the legislation, said he is looking for find a more "reasonable and responsible" way to regulate medical marijuana and expressed concern about the drug ending up in the hands of teens who have no legitimate medical reason to use it.

"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."