Michigan Senate OKs medical marijuana reform bills

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Michigan Senate approved Thursday a long-awaited overhaul to the state’s medical marijuana law after years of complaints that the 2008 voter-approved act created confusion and a little-regulated industry.

The package of bills would regulate and tax provisioning centers as well as the transportation of medical marijuana. It also would set up a tracking database and create new rules for where and how dispensaries could open.

“What we have now is totally out of control … caregivers are growing excessive amounts of marijuana … they’re smuggling it in their trunks … it’s totally illegal,” said Republican Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who supported the package.

Jones and others said Thursday the bills would help make both communities and patients safer. They also would bring some regulation into what has been a relatively lawless state of affairs for medical marijuana patients, caregivers and dispensaries, both Republican and Democratic critics said.

Many patients, marijuana dispensaries and lawmakers have been unsure for years about what the law permitted because of its ambiguity. Others have lamented that “provisioning centers” operate near schools, churches and other areas where residents may not want them.

If the House gives final approval the version of the legislation that senators approved, Michigan will contend with a whole new regulatory structure. The bills were approved in a series of contentious votes that split Republicans but were passed with the help of Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, said his GOP colleagues “got to a point where they understood that doing nothing was worse than regulating it.”

The state would impose a new 3 percent tax on “the gross retail income” of every provisioning center, the legislation said.

Marijuana dispensaries, growers, processors and transporters would have to get an annually renewed state license to operate. The legislative also would require dispensaries to get written approval from the city, township or village before they can set up shop. The municipality that approves the application in addition would sign off on the location of the provisioning center.

The overhaul would let municipalities limit the number of dispensaries and enact zoning ordinances to control where such businesses would open, addressing a concern about the shops popping where some people may not want them.

The definition of “medical use” and “usable marihuana” in state statute would be revised to include forms of the medicine that make use of extracts and plant resins, commonly called “edibles.”

New rules would establish maximum THC levels – the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana – for foods such as suckers, brownies, cookies or chocolates that contain marijuana or marijuana extract.

Another bill would require a state-run tracking system that collects information on sales, inventory and theft, from “seed to sale,” among other new regulations.

Some Republican senators who opposed the package, such as Sens. Patrick Colbeck of Canton and Ken Horn of Frankenmuth, said the bills would create a bloated bureaucracy and do little to address problems in the industry. Colbeck called the Senate approval a “defacto legalization of marijuana.”

But supporters of the legislation disagreed.

“We’re not freeing the weed here,” said Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit. “If we were freeing the weed, you would know, because I’d be standing on top of my table right now.”

Robin Schneider, Michigan liaison for the National Patient Rights Association, said parents of pediatric patients are especially thankful that the Senate approved the legislation.

She said cancer patients and others have been afraid for years they were breaking the law by taking their medicine in the form of pills, topical oils or edibles. An appeals court ruling concluded that the state’s medical marijuana law only protecting smoking.

Schneider said epileptic children who had been using marijuana to treat their epilepsy might have died if they complied with the court ruling and stopped using the substance.

“We’ve lost a lot of pediatric patients to seizures here in Michigan," she said.