Marijuana bills give Michigan patients fair access

The legislation will create uniformity across the state for medical marijuana users, and give local communities power to approve if and where dispensaries are located. Costs of regulation and distribution under the law, though, may send more medical marijuana users to the black market.

The Senate last week passed a package of bills to substantially alter the state’s medical marijuana program, which has been vague ever since its 2008 passage. The vote is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, stronger guidelines and explicit approval of certain marijuana products were sorely needed, as many medical marijuana patients have been using the medicine in regulatory limbo.

At the same time, the regulatory framework approved by the Senate will likely enable the Legislature to favor certain parts of the system over others, and could potentially send business back to the black market.

The legislation creates a three-tiered licensing system for medical marijuana growers based on how many plants they raise. It also licenses marijuana processors, provisioning centers and dispensaries, transporters and testing facilities.

That should help legislators who have been skeptical of the medical marijuana program in Michigan feel better about the legitimacy of the distribution system and, more importantly, it will safeguard patients’ access to their medicine.

On the negative side, the Legislature has crafted a system very similar to the tiered regulatory structure for alcohol in this state, which almost solely benefits the middlemen while jacking up prices for consumers. Sen. Rick Jones, a sponsor of the marijuana bill package, was also intimately involved in crafting new state regulations for alcohol distribution.

The Senate package imposes a 3 percent tax on the gross retail income of provisioning centers, which could bring in a much-needed $40 million to $50 million in revenue to the state. Half that new money will likely go toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations, which are projected to cost about $21 million annually.

The legislation will finally protect the sale and manufacturing of edibles, products such as topical oils, suckers, brownies, cookies or chocolates, that contain marijuana. It would establish maximum THC levels to be used in those products and, importantly, would protect patients’ use of these products.

The legislation also gives power to municipalities to approve applications for dispensaries. That’s fair. Communities should be able to decide if and where these businesses set up shop.

The package contains other provisions to track marijuana from seed to sale, which guards against the criminal element benefiting from medical marijuana sales.

While a regulatory and tax structure will benefit medical marijuana in Michigan overall, it’s important this doesn’t become the basis for over-regulating the drug. Other medicines not only aren’t taxed, but many are actually subsidized by the state through various programs. Marijuana shouldn’t be burdened with heavy regulations that push patients back into a black market.

Sen. Pat Colbeck said he worries the new rules are a de facto full legalization of marijuana, a sentiment that seems to be shared among other lawmakers. They’re not.

But perhaps they should be, given the widespread support for legalization. Should that day come, this regulatory framework at least gives policymakers a starting point for regulating recreational use of pot.

If the House approves the bills, they will give medical marijuana patients a clear system of rules to work within. That’s an improvement over what they’ve had for the past eight years.