Municipalities struggling with vagueness of marijuana law


In the fall of 2008, Michigan voters approved a new medical marijuana law. Now, 18 months later, many public officials are noticeably frustrated by the measure. They say it's short on detail and open to wide interpretation. That's got the state's municipalities scrambling to pass local ordinances to clear up the confusion and move forward.

Michigan's controversial new medical marijuana law is intended to relieve symptoms of a variety of disorders: Krohn's Disease, chronic pain or nausea from aids or cancer treatment, and others. To possess it legally, you must be either a patient certified by a qualified physician or a caregiver approved by a patient. Lansing attorney Michael Woodworth is a municipal law specialist. He says the new measure includes a lot of ambiguity.

(reading statute) " 'A person who assists someone in the use of marijuana is exempt from criminal prosecution.' And it's interesting to note that the act says there 'a person,' he says. "It doesn't refer to a registered caregiver."

Elsewhere, a simple reference to the quoting here--"use of marijuana" sends up a flag.

"There's a difference between medical use of marijuana, which is defined in the act," he explains. "The act simply refers to use,' it doesn't refer to 'medical use.' "

Grey areas like these are exasperating municipal leaders across the state as they acclimate to the legal use of cannabis in their communities. Lansing city councilperson Carol Wood chairs the city's public safety committee, which is drafting an ordinance. She says her main concern is safety where legal caregivers or so-called "dispensaries" possess quantities of the herb. She wants some regulation....

" .so that everyone understands what that criteria is and can feel comfortable in their neighborhoods or in a commericial area...that this is being regulated in a way that they can feel safe about it," she says.

Such dispensaries are opening around the state, but the statute neglects to explain their role or how they should operate. The owner of an Old Town dispensary, Danny Trevino, is neither a legal caregiver nor a patient. He admits his business exists in a grey area. That gets back to wording in the law concerning primary caregivers.

"The state allows for that person to be able to grow for five people as a primary caregiver, but primary meaning just the first caregiver," he says. "Uh, the state doesn't say how many caregivers you're allowed to have."

His reasoning is a primary caregiver implies a secondary caregiver. Meanwhile, Lansing City attorney Brigham Smith suggests the city's ordinance will allow such dispensaries.

"I believe an out right prohibition is probably going too far into the statute," he says. "What our focus instead will have to be is some kind of closely monitored permission by way of an ordinance."

Voters--who approved the medical marijuana law with a 63% yes vote--remain supportive of the measure. But they're increasingly aware of the confusion. And like Lansing's Betty McGinnis, they're concerned.

"I wonder if, uh, there's going to be some rogue businesses going on....and that the city may not have the manpower to police the licensing...and what might occur in some of these establishments," she says.

Statewide, Attorney Mike Woodworth anticipates a patchwork of ordinances, at least in the immediate future.

"But as these ordinances are adopted, and frankly as they're challenged and get into the court systems, it'll become clearer and clearer as to what the courts perceive as permissible and what they perceive as overreaching in terms of regulation," he explains. "At that point we'll probably begin to see more uniformity."

At 12:45 Tuesday, Lansing officials expect to take a look at the city's first draft of a medical marijuana ordinance. The city's Public Safety committee chair Carol Wood, hopes to have an ordinance on the books by June 1. East Lansing and several other communities expect to have ordinances drafted within a few weeks.