Michigan’s medical marijuana sector is at a crossroads.
Tens of thousands of Michigan patients, with their doctors’ recommendations, are getting relief from painful, debilitating diseases thanks to medical marijuana. As a business owner in Michigan’s medical marijuana sector, I hear again and again stories of patients whose lives have significantly improved, including parents with kids suffering from seizures, autism, and other conditions that do not respond to conventional pharmaceutical medicines.
Michigan is at a crossroads because voters will likely be asked to approve several ballot proposals to fully legalize marijuana. Polls show these proposals have a good chance of being approved. At the same time, Michigan’s seven-year-old medical marijuana law, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 2008, contains too many gaps, with unresolved issues and gray areas that our Legislature in Lansing must address without delay.
For Michigan to have a strong regulatory framework in place that can protect patients, communities and small local businesses that are committed to playing by the rules, we should heed the lessons of Colorado. The Rocky Mountain state passed its medical marijuana law in 2000, and fully legalized it in 2012. Yet today, it is experiencing major problems – problems that could have been prevented.
In 2002, I moved to Colorado from Michigan to work at Ford Motor Co. In Colorado, a doctor treating me for degenerative disc disease advised me to try medical marijuana. This has turned my life around, allowing me to function without the debilitating, zombie-fying side effects of painkiller drugs. Seeing how medical marijuana helped me, I began working in my spare time at Colorado’s first medical marijuana dispensary to help others find relief when conventional pharmaceuticals no longer worked.
I saw how the total lack of regulations in Colorado quickly opened the door to what became known as the “green rush.” Hundreds of dispensaries popped up across Colorado with no regulations or limitations. Some marijuana shops sprouted next to schools and churches. In some areas, you could see marijuana dispensaries next to each other.
Colorado’s legislature scrambled to fix the problems, but their actions resembled those of a farmer closing the barn door after the horses have galloped away. Outside special interests and their powerful lobbyists swooped in and hijacked Colorado’s efforts to remedy its medical marijuana catastrophe.
One Colorado law required only voluntary tracking of products, which is being exploited by black market growers. Another law theoretically required the state to track plants using special tags – except that the State of Colorado never bought the scanning devices required to read the tags. Many of the laws do not require oversight. Zoning regulations were a mess because of exorbitant costs, which meant only deep pocketed corporations or wealthy individuals could comply, thus shutting out small, local businesses.
Today, Colorado is home to the mega-marijuana corporate farm. Some growers have as many as 12,500 plants. This past spring, Denver City officials ordered that 60,000 plants be quarantined because they were treated with a highly toxic antifungal chemical that unethical growers are using to eliminate mold. High taxes are creating an underground black market. The quality of marijuana medicine is poor.
Michigan must NOT go down the rocky road to ruin, and we must learn from Colorado’s experience.
Michigan’s legislators are considering proposals that are a step in the right direction toward establishing a responsible, accountable, and safe medical marijuana sector. These deserve our full support.
Our legislators in Lansing should always remember that only patients with a doctor’s recommendation should have access to medical marijuana, and we should pass tough laws to keep marijuana out of the hands of kids who want to use it illegally, while keeping bad actors out of this growing industry.
Without tough standards, a strong regulatory framework and clear guidelines where the private sector can operate with certainty, bad actors and fly-by-night operators will continue to put patients and public safety at risk. Accountability and transparency are the foundations for developing a level playing field so all businesses can compete fairly in Michigan’s medical marijuana industry.
Here are some recommendations:
- Businesses involved in different phases of medical marijuana should be separated into distinct “tiers” of producers or growers; testing facilities; secure transfer services that transport medical marijuana from one location to another; and retailers or sellers. Medical marijuana can and should be tracked at every “tier” to ensure dangerous products are kept out of the market or can be removed quickly.
- Michigan must do high-level, intensive background checks, such as those done by the FBI, for those working in the medical marijuana industry to make sure we keep out bad actors.
- Michigan should limit the number of licenses for each person, company or group, and limit plant counts to 1,500.
- Facilities must be licensed and medical marijuana workers must be trained.
- Law enforcement and regulators must be empowered to conduct regular inspections.
- Payments and transactions must be done in ways that will prevent undue influence.
- Taxes must be fair to prevent black market sales.
The laws Michigan passes must be clear, without loopholes that can be exploited or misinterpreted. Clarity is key: an exasperated Michigan Supreme Court bluntly noted that Michigan’s law is full of confusion and uncertainty as it ruled on the ninth medical marijuana case this past July.
Colorado could have avoided much of the pain they are now experiencing from marijuana. Instead, they chose shortcuts and quick fixes that ultimately harmed their long term future.
Michigan’s Legislature has the opportunity to put our state first, and act now to provide Michigan patients with safe products and access, and Michigan businesses with a level playing field. With a strong framework for the safe regulation of medical marijuana, Michigan can promote local Michigan businesses, while creating jobs and driving our local economy. In addition to protecting patients and providing certainty to businesses, strong regulations will also provide a solid foundation for our state should voters choose to decriminalize marijuana.
Kevin Pybus, president and CEO, Cannaisseur, Lansing