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Philly420: From Del. to Detroit, plans differ for medical marijuana

Advocates for medical marijuana are quick to point out that 23 states have passed some sort of therapeutic cannabis law. All of them are different. They range from the broadly worded (California) to severely restrictive (New Jersey). The truth is that only a handful of these states actually offer programs that serve a majority of patients.

Robust programs are running in Maine, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and California. These states offer the widest array of access from home cultivation, collective gardens and professional dispensaries. The rest of the country struggles to compete for a similar level of compassion.

New Jersey only has about 4,000 registered medical marijuana patients. When it was passed in 2010, the law envisioned that hundreds of thousands would participate. After all, there are 9 million residents in the Garden State, and many are living with a qualifying condition. But endless regulatory delays and multiple bureaucratic hurdles resulted in the most expensive regulated cannabis in the country. Judging by the registry numbers, N.J.'s severely ill residents have, apparently, given up on the program.

Last week, the New Jersey Department of Health reluctantly issued some guidelines for edible forms (cookies, chocolates, capsules, oils and lozenges) to be sold in the state's three operating dispensaries. This is more than 18 months since the N.J. Legislature passed a special bill to expand the program that Gov. Christie signed. The delay is par for the course in how the N.J. Medicinal Marijuana Program has failed to deliver.

New York's Health Department will be issuing regulations for their program in the next two weeks. N.Y. looked at N.J. for some guidance, meaning the Empire State could follow the same path of broken promises.

Delaware passed a medical marijuana law in 2011. Officials have been pledging to open a single medical marijuana facility since 2013. Patients and caregivers have been able to register since last year. The First State Compassion Center, run by a former state police trooper, was supposed to start serving patients on Jan. 17 but stayed closed.

I contacted Emily Knearl, Chief of Community Relations at the Del. Division of Public Health. She said delays caused by the weather and construction have pushed the opening back into "late spring or early summer" of 2015.

Other states' legislation focused on CBD oil, like one recently passed in Virginia. The new law in the Old Dominion State, signed in February, only allows a medical necessity defense. Passed on the shoulders of severely ill children and their families, Virginia made no provisions for cultivation of cannabis plants or the production of CBD oil. Anyone caught with it will be arrested, their oil confiscated - just as before - but now they can make a plea in court when they are prosecuted.

Somewhere in the middle of the medical marijuana laws lies Michigan.

Detroit City Councilman James Tate made waves in January when he told reporters there were more than 180 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in the Motor City.

These businesses could be a big help to a city struggling with finances, adding jobs and paying property taxes. There is, however, a catch: Technically they are still illegal.

Michigan voters passed a medical marijuana law with a ballot proposal in 2008 and the measure was implemented in 2009. The law allows for patients to cultivate their own marijuana or designate a caregiver to grow for them. But dispensaries were never regulated under the law.

Councilman Tate spoke with me via phone about these businesses that are operating in a legal gray area.

"There's at least fourteen in District 1," said Tate, "I've been to a number of them. I've been on tours. One had a waterfall and a kind of spa-type atmosphere. They're not little storefronts, some major investments are being made."

Jeannie Vogel of the Michigan Licensing and Regulation Authority (LARA), the state agency that oversees the medical cannabis program, told me that there were 96,408 registered patients at the end of fiscal year 2014. This is a slight decline over previous years. However, the numbers do show a strong level of participation.

When it comes to facilities that look to serve those patients the response from LARA was simple, "Dispensaries are not legal in Michigan."

Nonetheless hundreds of establishments are open across the Wolverine State. Not all of them are over-the-counter shops for medical cannabis like what is seen in California or Colorado.

Matt Abel, the director of Michigan NORML and a lawyer specializing in marijuana laws, said there are a variety of options for a location looking to serve patients. Many would not really fit the description of a dispensary.

"Some facilities have lock-boxes where caregivers leave meds," said Abel, "patients pick them up later. That is legal."

"Just because there is marijuana being transferred there doesn't show evidence of a crime," he said.

Abel pointed out that criminal penalties are severe for cannabis suppliers. Selling any amount, even a few grams, or cultivating less than 20 plants is an automatic felony in Michigan. Fines and jail time increase with quantity.

Still, some of full service dispensaries open right now in Michigan aren't shy.

A WeedMapsTV video on YouTube from Dec.  2014 took a tour of a shop called Karma located in Inkster, Mich., a western suburb of Detroit. The crisp, well-lit facility has a upscale coffeehouse feel with blonde wood counter-tops, glass display cases full of buds and even edibles. The two clean-cut volunteers, Amber and Lee Ann, showed off their "signature strain" called DeathStar.

Local authorities aren't in a rush to shut them down. Neither is Councilman Tate.

"My goal is not to repeal the medical marijuana act," said Tate, "but, we've got to get away from an anything goes atmosphere."

Tate is hoping that new legislation in Lansing, the state capitol, will give Detroit the power to regulate dispensaries at the local level.

"I saw one location had no signage in particular, went inside and it was professionally run. There was security [for patients] to and from vehicle. I looked at their data base and it was sophisticated. Let's not go shut them down. But I don't think we should have the high numbers we have now."

Tate says that cannabis industry "insiders" provided him with the estimate of 180 shops.

Matt Abel, the NORML director who is based in Detroit, thinks that number is a bit inflated.

Just after the Michigan law was passed "Everyone thought dispensaries were legal," said Abel. "There were even about 80 dispensaries in Lansing."

But after some changes to the program were enacted by the Michigan legislature,  the shops in Lansing closed ...or at least became more discrete.

Tate says he wants to get a handle on the industry in Detroit and for the providers to be the best possible for patients.

"I believe in compassionate care to help people's quality of life," said Councilman Tate.

What Tate wants is for state politicians to pass new a measure that allows for "proper licensing."

"What's interesting is looking at this issue and working a with patients' rights and with some of the owners. For me it's important that patients receive the medication that they pay for. There needs to be some sort of control mechanism for the individual know what they are getting."

Tate is hoping for any change to Michigan state law will involve laboratory testing, facility regulations and an expanded list of products. Right now patients are only supposed to get raw cannabis plants. That means, technically, edibles, concentrates, tinctures and topical creams can be made at home by patients but not provided by caregivers.

Tate and his fellow Detroit city councilors are also worried about "clustering" where 3 or 4 shops are open on the same block. While he does not want to see anyone shut down, Tate also does not want any business "grandfathered" in just because they are open already. He wants everyone to go through a licensing process.

In March  2012, I flew to Detroit to attend a medical marijuana conference. It opened my eyes to the amazing success of a program. It also showed me the vibrant cannabis community that has not received the same attention as western states. There were growers, caregivers, patients working alongside legal advocates. There was also a thriving cottage industry; businesses that sell growing equipment, soils, vaporizers and even solar power arrays.

When it comes to severely ill residents, no one is looking to make a quick buck. Councilman Tate said getting licensing fees from medical marijuana shops was not his priority.

Michigan has been generally operating as success for patients. It remains to be seen if state politicians wish to tinker too much with a good thing.

On March 24th a joint information hearing will be held in Philadelphia by the Pa. House Health and Judiciary Committees on a bill to bring access to the Keystone State.

The current language of the Pensylvania bill is very limited. It would allow only 10 qualifying medical conditions while offering only edible oils and products. Smoking and vaporization would not be permitted. But lab testing and quality controls are built in. Senate sponsors of the bill, Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) and Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), are hoping to expand the legislation before it is passed.

Gov. Wolf solidly supports legal access to medical cannabis.

With legislators in Harrisburg leaning towards a limited law it could back Wolf into a corner. The governor could end up signing a law that will take years to regulate while providing more compassion on paper than in reality on the streets of Pennsylvania.

Clearly there are better examples to follow.

*Note - portions of this article first appeared in Freedom Leaf Magazine

Chris Goldstein is associate editor of Freedom Leaf magazine and co-chair of PhillyNorml. Contact him at