Cities try to define gray area in med pot laws

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Medical marijuana patient Holice P. Woods rolls a marijuana cigarette. Woods said he uses marijuana to alleviate chronic back pain. He has been one of the leading proponents of Michigan’s medical marijuana laws and is working to open a marijuana collective at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Holice P. Woods lights a marijuana cigarette to medicate his chronic back pain. Woods has been one of the leading proponents of Michigan’s medical marijuana laws and is working to open a marijuana collective at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Photo by J. Patrick Pepper

Kendal Roush mans the counter at the recently opened Hydro Giant, 14455 Ford Road. Roush said that much of the store’s customer base are medical marijuana growers.

Times-Herald Newspapers

Medical marijuana has been legal in Michigan for more than a year, but a number issues not spelled out explicitly in the law have left local officials trying to figure out how to regulate it in their communities.

Voters passed the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act by a 63 percent margin in November 2008, giving patients with serious or chronic ailments the ability to legally use marijuana to alleviate suffering.

The law provides that qualifying patients receive a state-issued identification card that allows them to have up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana at one time and sets up a “caregiver” status that allows people to care of up to five patients by growing as many as 12 plants per patient.

As of April 30, the agency charged with instituting the system, the Michigan Department of Community Health, reported that thus far a total of 27,883 applications/renewals have been received, and that 14,398 patient and 6,274 caregiver ID cards have been issued.

But unlike some states with medical marijuana laws, such as California, there is no provision that regulates commercial enterprises. And with marijuana still entirely illegal under federal law, this is where things get complicated.

“In states where the law addresses marijuana dispensaries, the law establishes a system to regulate those facilities,” said James Curtis Jr., a spokesman for the MDCH.

“Since the law in Michigan does not address dispensaries or offer any regulating system for them, the Michigan Department of Community Health interprets the law as saying that it is illegal to operate a marijuana dispensary.”

But while most legal experts say the dispensaries — a retail outlet for growers and patients to sell and purchase pot — violate federal law, there isn’t any consensus on how to regulate so-called “cannabis clinics.” The uncertainty has sent municipalities scrambling to come up with their own ordinances to cope with the new industry, which has some proponents of the law calling for more uniform guidelines.

Such is the case with Eugene Runco. The Dearborn Heights resident said he has run into nothing but problems in trying to find a community to locate a cannabis clinic. The clinic would offer doctor consultations strictly related to medical marijuana and provide services such as cultivation classes for patients interested in growing their own, Runco said.

First, he was spurned by Garden City officials, who objected to his proposed location on the city’s main commercial drag along Ford Road.

Next, he attempted to open up in a medical office building in Dearborn Heights. City officials told him the facility, on Warren east of Outer Drive, didn’t have enough parking to provide for students in the education courses he was offering, he said.

More recently, Runco submitted a proposal for a cannabis clinic on Telegraph just north of Michigan Avenue in Dearborn. But again, concerns about parking space derailed his plans, he said.

“It’s a shame that so many communities have decided they don’t want to be a part of this, even though the voters have made their feelings known and you have so many people that are in legitimate need of care,” said Runco, who is a relative of former 19th District Chief Judge Bill Runco.

Dearborn officials said Runco’s proposal was the first they have received for a medical marijuana-exclusive business and that it was used to inform a new zoning ordinance that while not actually naming medical-marijuana, prohibits the use of a structure for “enterprises or purposes that are contrary to federal, state or local laws.”

Although it doesn’t seem that Runco’s business would have violated federal marijuana laws, another passage in the ordinance provides that any use of a structure that is not expressly permitted under city codes is prohibited.

And because medical marijuana wasn’t a consideration when Dearborn first crafted its zoning ordinances, there is no reference to permitting it, which would make Runco’s clinic impossible without getting a variance.

“We just said that it’s clear that uses that are not expressly permitted are prohibited, (and) it seems to be self-evident that you can’t do something that’s contrary to federal law,” concluded Corporation Counsel Debra Walling. “There needs to be some reconciliation between the state and federal laws and we’re not looking to do that.”

But advocates for medical marijuana say that ordinances like Dearborn’s – which is similar to that of many other Michigan municipalities – are surreptitiously trying to subvert the voter’s intent.

“They are trying to do something that they can say doesn’t apply just to medical marijuana, that it applies across the board,” said Saginaw attorney Greg Schmid, an advocate for medical marijuana who is not a user.

“But clearly they are trying to remedy the perceived ill of medical marijuana, and at some point there will be some form of legislation by litigation when lawsuits start to get filed about this — which they will.”

Still, even as some would-be pot entrepreneurs find difficulties and lawyers wrangle over the meaning of the law, medical-marijuana has proved a boon for other related industries.

Business is booming at Hydro Giant, which opened up at 14455 Ford Road about three months ago. The store specializes in selling hydroponic systems for plant cultivation that can go for as much as $10,000 for a system capable of handling the caregiver’s legal maximum of 72 plants.

And while the store doesn’t cater specifically to medical marijuana growers, employee Kendal Roush estimates that 75 to 80 percent of its customers are there seeking infrastructure to grow pharmaceutical-grade pot.

“We have seen a huge response from the medical marijuana growers, and there has just been an explosion of demand,” said Roush. “We are happy to provide them with the products they’re looking for, just like we are for anyone who is into hydroponic cultivation.”