State lawmakers are looking to resolve what appears to be an oversight when it passed legislation in 2016 creating a regulatory framework for the medical marijuana industry.
At issue is whether operating dispensaries should have to close down during the months-long process it will take to issue their licenses under the new law.
The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) has said dispensaries, or provisioning centers, should close by Dec. 15 — when the state starts accepting applications for various types of medical marijuana businesses — or risk being denied such a license.
Department officials have suggested patients acquire medical marijuana as is clearly laid out in Michigan’s 2008 voter-approved law by growing their own or acquiring it from a certified caregiver.
But medical marijuana advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers say that transition isn’t easy for patients, particularly those suffering from acute conditions like epilepsy or cancer.
“If the state were to suddenly close every dispensary on Dec. 15, it would be impossible for these people to find caregivers,” said state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge. “The issue is: What can we do to make sure really sick people can get their medication until the licensing goes through.”
Jones, a former Eaton County sheriff, is a sponsor of Senate Bills 599 and 600, which would allow dispensaries that are “licensable” under the new law to continue operating until their application has been approved. In such cases, Jones said dispensaries would need permission from their local jurisdiction to operate. A companion bill in the House, H.B. 5014, has 22 Democrat and three Republican sponsors.
Jones said the intent of the bill is to allow dispensaries currently operating with local permission to continue doing so until they are licensed, a process that could take upwards of nine months. If they are denied a license under LARA’s rules, then they wouldn’t be able to keep operating.
Introduced in late September, all three bills are in committee. Jones said it may take a few more weeks to “talk with municipalities about the wording and trying to get it just right.” Amendments so far include adding a deadline for the state licensing board to approve or deny applications by Nov. 1, 2018, as well as stating that the licensing board “shall not” consider whether an applicant operated as a dispensary in the interim period.
However, Jones believes there is enough support in the legislature to approve the interim measure.
“I can’t predict how many votes there will be, but I think it has enough to pass,” Jones said.
At an Oct. 10 meeting of the Senate Health Policy Committee, the only group to speak out against the proposal was the Michigan Responsibility Council, an East Lansing-based 501(c)6 nonprofit that was formed by two Oakland County Republican political operatives in 2015.
During the hearing, Jones asked “what millionaires” the group’s representative, Steve Linder, worked for.
“That’s kind of like my wife asking if I look fat in this dress. Come on. I don’t think I’m going to dignify that with an answer,” Linder replied.
Before the exchange, though, Linder said state law is clear that dispensaries are operating illegally, even if they have permission from local governments.
“We find these bills — in the face of the intent of the (2016) law that hasn’t even had written rules yet and gone into effect — jaw-dropping,” Linder said. “It gives dispensaries … a carve-out to knowingly break the law.”
He added that patients using dispensaries have “abandoned their legal obligations to have caregivers.” When asked by the committee what patients are supposed to do in the interim, Linder responded: “Everyone feels compassion and cares about people who need access to drugs. However, everyone also has personal responsibility. Patients have the responsibility to … find a caregiver.”
State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Lansing, responded that the Legislature “also has a responsibility” to resolve the issue.
“We know we created the problem, now we’ve created a system that will fix it,” Hertel said. “But we created a problem with people having access.”
A LARA spokesperson told MiBiz the agency “doesn’t typically comment on pending legislation.”
When asked to comment on claims that it would be difficult for patients to go back to a caregiver model or grow their own, LARA spokesperson David Harns said in an email: “Until provisioning centers are licensed under the (2016) Medical Marihuana Facility Licensing Act, the only legally-permissible way for patients to acquire medicinal marihuana is to abide by the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act as approved by Michigan voters in 2008, which allows for patients to grow their own medical marihuana or to obtain their medical marihuana from a designated caregiver.”
State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has reportedly called the situation an “unintentional oversight.” As chairman of the Senate Health Policy Committee, he has said he expects the bills to move relatively quickly.
Doing so would offer assurances for many of the more than 200,000 registered medical marijuana patients in Michigan. Amid testimony to the Senate Health Policy Committee this month, multiple advocates told stories about the type of safe, reliable access dispensaries provide as an alternative to the labor- and capital-intensive process of growing cannabis. Dispensaries also often supply alternatives to the smokeable forms of marijuana, such as tinctures, oils and edibles.
“People don’t understand this community, this industry and the lives involved,” testified Justin Nichols, an 11-year combat veteran who was diagnosed with PTSD. He said dispensaries can serve as a sort of outreach center for other veterans interested in using medical marijuana to treat their symptoms.
Referring to Linder, Nichols said: “All that is is money talking, coming from people who are not involved in this … and the best way to capitalize on this is to shut it down. I think it’s a shame we’re even in a position or even considering taking a step back.”
Carla Boyd, a board member of the Epilepsy Foundation of Michigan, also urged support for the bills. Boyd is the mother of a 15-year-old with incurable, drug-resistant epilepsy, she told the committee. For her daughter, CBD oil is “working better than any other anti-seizure drug,” but she added that patients can take “many months” to wean off any type of seizure medication, including medical marijuana.
“If you shut down dispensaries … for any amount of time, people are going to end up in the hospital or worse, I promise you that,” Boyd said. “Nothing should stand in the way of patients continuing to have access to this potentially life-saving treatment.”