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Wednesday, November 10,2010

'Safe harbor'

Lansing is working to regulate medical marijuana businesses amid dispensary crackdowns in southeast Michigan

by Andy Balaskovitz
After nine people were arrested in Metro Detroit for operating a medical marijuana dispensary, it’s hard not to think about the fate of the 16 similar businesses within the city of Lansing.

On Aug. 25, the Oakland County drug enforcement team raided Clinical Relief in Ferndale. Nine people were arrested and await a potential trial on felony drug manufacturing charges. An undercover officer used a fake medical marijuana card to make purchases at Clinical Relief. Two dispensaries in Waterford Township and several private residences — also in Oakland County — were also raided that day, leading to six more arrests.


Ironically, on the same day, Clinical Relief opened a second location at 2617 E. Michigan Ave. in Lansing. But recently it changed its name, to Relief Choices of Lansing.


Jake, who owns and operates Relief Choices of Lansing, said he changed the name partly because of the raids. Jake, who would not give his last name, volunteered at the Ferndale dispensary for about two months. He is 35, commutes from Oakland County and knows all of the “Ferndale Nine,” as they’re being called.


Jake straddles the line between nervousness and comfort when it comes to operating a medical marijuana business in Ingham County.


Dispensaries — compassion clubs, as they are euphemistically called — are not even mentioned in the law. Some take that to mean they are illegal. Others reason that if they are operated by caregivers and patients who are selling to other caregivers and patients, then they are legal. The law says says patients cannot be arrested for engaging in “medical use,” which is defined as the "acquisition, possession, cultivation, manufacture, use, internal possession, delivery, transfer, or transportation" of cannabis.


The law also says that caregivers can be reimbursed the costs of growing the plant and that each caregiver can have up to five patients. The maximum per patient is 12 plants and 2 1/2 ounces of usable product.


If you are a patient and a caregiver for five other patients, you could legally possess up to 72 plants and 15 ounces.


For anyone that has seen cannabis, that’s a lot. It also creates an "overage" of what’s allowed. So if a patient happens to be running a dispensary and reasons that patient-to-patient transfers are legal, out pops a lucrative business opportunity.


Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard has said that the marijuana was sold illegally at the three dispensaries and that the state law is inadequate because it does not explain how sales fit into the equation.


Jake believes what happened in Ferndale was meant to be a test case on whether dispensaries are part of what voters approved when 63 percent of them decided in 2008 to allow medical marijuana in Michigan.


“I can understand and appreciate looking at the judicial system for guidance,” Jake said. “But I don’t agree with their methods (of raids).”


Knowing the Ferndale operation closely, Jake said its owners “never stepped outside of their boundaries” as far as plant limits and keeping usable product on-site. This makes him “definitely affected” by the raids.


“It seems like everyone is holding their breath now. I’d be lying if I said what happened in Oakland County didn’t scare the pants off me,” Jake said, adding that he does not believe he is operating an illegal business. “I wouldn’t be in the business if I thought I was. This is not some joke — it’s a legal business.”


Meanwhile, Lansing City Attorney Brig Smith has a draft ordinance sitting in the Public Safety Committee that he refers to as “volume two” of regulating medical marijuana in Lansing.


The four-page draft defines “compassionate care centers” — not dispensaries — as “an entity that operates and controls a medical marihuana establishment.” They are comprised of caregivers and qualifying patients who pay membership dues. It must be incorporated as a nonprofit, providing physician and/or attorney recommendations or “other services indicating a bona fide service-oriented relationship between the compassionate care center and its members.”


Under the draft, centers could only be located in “F” or “F-1” commercial districts as long as it’s not within 1,000 feet of a public or private school (from elementary to university) or within 100 feet of a youth center, public swimming pool or “video arcade facility.” Violators would be subject to a misdemeanor with fines up to $500 or up to 90 days in jail.


While the ordinance does not grant immunity from state or federal law, it does say, “Compliance with this ordinance shall be deemed a safe harbor under which compassionate care centers and their members can reasonably expect not to face criminal prosecution under the act.”


The Lansing City Council passed an ordinance that took effect Sept. 27 that regulates home occupation caregivers who see patients at home.


Matthew Newburg, who started his own private law practice to specialize in medical marijuana cases, says the decision to go after these businesses that vaguely operate within the state statute falls largely on county prosecutors and sheriffs — even if the local municipality takes steps to regulate them, as Lansing is doing.


In the case of Oakland County, the sheriff and the prosecutor are in agreement that dispensaries are illegal, even though Ferndale city officials approved Clinical Relief’s existence. In Ingham County, Newburg says Sheriff Gene Wriggelsworth and Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings are taking a hands-off approach, at least for now.


“Ingham County is in the information-seeking stage, gathering as much information as possible,” Newburg said. “It’s not as aggressive as Oakland County.”


Most important, Newburg said an “open dialogue between police and the medical marijuana community” on dispensaries needs to happen.


“I hope it’s done in a civil way,” he added.


“And that everyone comes to terms with the fact that it will be difficult to amend (the statute).”


But amending the statute is exactly what most law enforcement wants to see, including Wriggelsworth.


“The
law needs to be rewritten so everyone understands it,” he said. “I
don’t think the group that drafted this had all their lights turned on.
Maybe that was by design.”


Wriggelsworth
added that the “paranoia on the part of everybody” that police are
lurking near these businesses in Ingham County, waiting to bust them, is
simply not true.


“The idea that there’s cops hiding behind trees is wrong,” he said.


Wriggelsworth
added that he has not received any complaints about the businesses in
Lansing, and therefore has not acted upon them. He said he only works
with Dunnings when something “needs to be investigated and charged,” and
he said that has only happened in the case of Fredrick Wayne Dagit and
an alleged bust of more than 200 pounds of marijuana at the Green Leaf
Smokers Club in Williamstown Township, which Dagit owned.


Dunnings did not return calls for comment.


Eaton
County Prosecutor Jeff Sauter said that the inconsistency in law
enforcement at the county and local level is “unfortunate.”


“It’s the byproduct of the way the medical marijuana law was written,” Sauter said.


“From a legal point of view, it’s very complex and from a law enforcement point of view it’s complex and frustrating.”


Sauter said he advises deputies to not make arrests if there is a state-issued card at the scene to “avoid potential civil liability for the officer or department.”


Robin
Schneider, who operates Capitol City Compassion Club at 2010 E.
Michigan Ave., said she is “very comfortable” being a patient and a
caregiver in Ingham County.


“As soon as I leave Ingham County, I’m nervous,” she said.


Schneider
said she has been pulled over by Ingham County police while
transporting plants and usable product for her patients — all within the
legal quantities — and “it was no problem.”


Schneider said the rules at Capitol City Compassion Club are simple: “Get a caregiver or get lost.”


On
Nov. 3, Capital City Caregivers, 2208 E. Michigan Ave., organized a bus
trip to Ferndale to protest outside of a community center where a
probable cause hearing was happening for the Ferndale Nine. About 20
people rode the bus to show support to those who are part of the same cause.


Ryan
Basore, founder of Capital City, said “the more the merrier” when it
comes to medical marijuana businesses in Lansing. While the news out of
Oakland County and the election of Bill Schuette as attorney general —
who led the opposition to the 2008 ballot initiative — is grim for
medical marijuana advocates, Basore said Ingham County is still a
relatively safe place.


For the protesters in Ferndale, the actions by Bouchard were a violation of patients’ rights.


Twenty-year-old
Lansing Community College Student Sierra Porter attended last week’s
rally and is in the process of getting her paperwork processed with the
state.


“I have a little bit of anxiety, seeing all the different (arrests) in Michigan. What if it happens here?” she wonders.


Porter
said despite the questions surrounding law enforcement and medical
marijuana dispensaries, it’s nice to be part of a community that’s
supporting each other and not hiding in their basements.


“The thought that I’d have people stand up for me and be supportive, that kind of community is pretty cool,” she said.

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