Medical marijuana law gives rise to industry, causes worries for authorities

By chillinwill · Dec 20, 2009 ·
  1. chillinwill
    David Overholt has great hopes for the marijuana he is growing in the basement of his Montcalm County farmhouse.

    As a founder of the Mid Michigan Compassion Club, Overholt says the medical marijuana law approved statewide last year has created business opportunities for people who see marijuana as an alternative to traditional pills and painkillers.

    “We’re bringing structure and order to an industry that has none,” said Overholt, whose club tries to pair patients legally entitled to get marijuana with “caregivers” growing marijuana legally.

    Overholt’s club is part of a cottage industry springing up since April, when the state issued rules for the distribution of medical marijuana.

    The 60 members hold twice-monthly informational meetings at club headquarters, a former bait shop, which includes two consultation rooms where patients can meet with doctors who could recommend marijuana as a treatment. A back room will become a “smoke room” where registered patients can sample products.

    The club, which charges dues of $200 per member, has a local lawyer to advise members on how to legally get marijuana to patients, Overholt said.

    The Gulf War veteran and former Steelcase employee said he smokes marijuana two or three times daily to replace narcotic painkillers as he copes with the aftermath of seven back surgeries. He also raises hay and cattle on his 104-acre farm.

    Right now, the club’s growth is limited because they have not found a local doctor to help patients get the proper paperwork to submit to the state, Overholt said. They had a Detroit doctor drive out for a meeting but their relationship soured, he said.

    “We’ll always push the envelope but we’ll never step over the line,” Overholt said.

    ‘Interested in helping’

    Other caregivers take a less ambitious approach.

    Matt P., a resident of Grand Rapids’ West Side, raises marijuana on behalf of three patients with Crohn’s Disease — one of the ailments that qualifies under the state law.

    “I’m not interested in retailing it, I’m interested in helping patients,” said Matt as he stood beneath the 1,000-watt sodium vapor lamps that cast a bright glow over 22 plants growing in buckets in a corner of his basement.

    “I’m not a drug dealer,” said Matt, who agreed to show The Press his indoor garden on the condition his last name not used. He is afraid his home will become a target of illegal dealers looking for a quick stash of high-quality pot.

    Matt, who claims he has lost money on his operation so far, said he would like more patients. Some of his crop is getting moldy, and he is convinced marijuana is a preferred method of treatment for Crohn’s Disease, he said.

    Authorities have several concerns

    Meanwhile, state health officials, law enforcement and zoning officials are struggling to adjust to an industry that is rapidly evolving out of an illegal enterprise.

    At the center is Celeste Clarkson, manager of the Compliance Section of the state Community Health Department’s Bureau of Health Professions. Her office keeps the register of legal patients and growers.

    As of Nov. 11, her office has received 11,517 applications, an average of 69 a day since the rules went into effect April 6. So far, the office has issued 6,439 patient registrations and 2,686 caregiver registrations.

    A caregiver can be registered only if they have at least one patient or are a patient themselves, Clarkson said. The state law allows each caregiver no more than five patients, and no more than 12 plants per patient.

    While the law allows caregivere to be paid for their costs associated with assisting their patients, they cannot sell marijuana, Clarkson said. The cost of growing marijuana is not set but determined by the caregiver and patient, she said.

    Doctors have worries, too

    Meanwhile, the law is making the medical community nervous. While the state law requires patients to get a recommendation before they may register, federal law prohibits doctors from prescribing marijuana.

    The law is silent on aspects such as compassion clubs or dispensaries, Clarkson said. It also does not address dosage amounts or workplace rules that forbid marijuana use.

    Law enforcement officials who once pursued marijuana growers also find the new law is unsettling.

    When Montcalm County Sheriff’s deputies responded to a burglar alarm at Overholt’s farmhouse last October and found his marijuana plants, they thought they were onto a crime scene until Overholt showed up and flashed his registration card, Undersheriff William Burden said.

    Overholt had 17 plants when he only was authorized to have 12, Burden said. “They seized five plants from him, which put him into compliance, and reported it to the prosecutor’s office which made a decision not to pursue charges,” he said.

    So far, Montcalm Prosecutor Andrea Krause said she has brought only one charge against someone claiming to be raising medical marijuana. “We have had very few cases where medical marijuana has been an issue,” she said.

    In the case she is pursuing, the accused did not have a registration card, did not have a locked growing facility and possessed too many plants, Krause said. The charges are pending, she said.

    Lt. Charles DeWitt, of the Kent County Narcotics Enforcement Team, said there were three cases in which suspects made medical marijuana claims.

    “It definitely has the potential for creating headaches,” he said. “At this point, we have not seen a large volume of increased activity because of it.”

    Although federal agencies still consider marijuana an illegal narcotic, the Obama administration recently announced it would not pursue medical marijuana growers who abide by their state’s laws.

    Medical marijuana also is a puzzle to local zoning officials who want to avoid neighborhood dispensaries.

    In Grand Rapids, Planning Director Suzanne Schulz has proposed rules limiting outlets to caregivers’ homes, pharmacies and clinics.

    “We must take this issue up and deal with it so that we are able to maintain some measure of control and provide proper protections to the community,” Schulz said. “Otherwise we will end up with something that nobody wants.”

    But an advocate said that is unworkable. Gregory Francisco, president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Society, said distributing medical marijuana through pharmacies and medical clinics is unworkable because pharmacists and doctors could lose their licenses by distributing a federally banned substance.

    “It has to be independent of a medical clinic because of the way the law is written,” said Francisco, the group’s founder and a self-described “amateur farmer.”

    Overholt said he is confident the obstacles and objections to marijuana will eventually disappear once people embrace its medicinal benefits.

    “Going from an illegal environment to a legal environment is difficult,” he said.

    “This is God’s gift to his people, it needs no processing and no one has ever OD’d on it.”

    Jim Harger
    December 20, 2009
    The Grand Rapids Press

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