Michigan's new marijuana law brings confusion

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Debra Young pulled out a handful of lighters from her glittery silver purse and smacked them on the table at Cannabis Counsel on Jefferson, then she and other activists celebrated — a few smoke alarms going off amid a dense fog — the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Michigan.

Greenhouse Walled Lake owner Jerry Millen answers questions of guests during an open house at the marijuana provisioning center in Walled Lake, Thursday.

“I bought a tray off Amazon of about 50 of them and they’re already disappearing,” said Young, a 61-year-old grower and caregiver from Ferndale. “I knew (the proposal to legalize marijuana) would pass because we’ve been pushing location initiatives for the last decade and when the time came, we had the knowledge, the people and almost had the money. We pulled the trigger and here we are.” 

Colin MacDougall from Dearborn has been an active user and supporter of legalization and was a paid petitioner until this year. He said the party at Cannabis Counsel was like a celebration among friends fighting for the same cause. 

“Came here to party and for a lot of weed to go around and some I could share with my friends, like some pre-rolled called Gorilla Glue,” said MacDougall, 28.

The end of pot prohibition was a culmination of decades of work to allow people to use, end its criminalization and create an industry estimated to grow to $800 million in revenue by 2024.

"We're going to stop wasting law enforcement on the failed policy of prohibition and low-level marijuana possession," said Josh Hovey, spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana like Alcohol, which campaigned for legalization. "We're going to be creating an entire new industry, which will mean new jobs and tax revenue for schools and local government. That's really what's taking place on Dec. 6."

Under the law, anyone over the age of 21 can be in possession of up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana, about 160 joints of 0.5 grams each. It still is illegal to use on federal property, at schools including public universities, and in public.

Other events were held throughout the state Thursday as Michigan became the 10th state and the first in the Midwest to legalize the drug for recreational use.

But with the new access came confusion over the new rules and regulations. And others are less enthusiastic, expressing concerns over the possibility of marijuana misuse by people driving on the road and making it easier for children to access.

"It's going to be a difficult day and for the foreseeable months as Michigan attempts to administer this proposal that it is not prepared for and not ready to jump into," said Scott Greenlee, spokesman for Healthy and Productive Michigan, which campaigned against the proposal voters passed last month. "Michigan has gone down this unfortunate road of what federal laws it will choose to enforce and choose to ignore."

The Reef, Detroit's largest medical marijuana dispensary, had received more than 400 phone calls on Wednesday and Thursday from people wondering if they could obtain marijuana for recreational use without a medical card.

"Unfortunately, we had to tell them how it is," said Evan Pilot, the comptroller for the dispensary.

Despite legalization for those 21 years or older, recreational marijuana still cannot be sold. The state Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department has up to a year before it must begin accepting applications for those who wish to sell the drug to nonmedical users.

"The rules are a little bit confusing, but again, this is the exact same situation we’ve been through with medical marijuana," Pilot said. "Initially, there were no medical dispensaries. As things progressed, we've had retail establishments that came up in the form of provisioning centers. It's a flourishing industry, so I think it will come in time."

Activist John Sinclair, seen at the 2018 Hash Bash in Ann Arbor, said Thursday, "It's always been legal in my mind."

It also is illegal to use marijuana in public; violations could cost up to $100. As a result, most celebrations happened in private Thursday.

That was the case for the famed John Sinclair. Once the name of the legalization movement in the 1970s, Sinclair, now 77, had no special plans Thursday, though he had his first marijuana joint for the day rolled and ready a day before.

A back injury had left him stuck to his sofa in the heart of Detroit, but Sinclair, two smokes in of his daily five, could smile with "satisfaction."

"It's always been legal in my mind," Sinclair said in a phone interview. "They (the law) were always wrong."

A poet by trade, Sinclair, after several convictions for marijuana possession, gained international recognition in 1969 for being sentenced up to 10 years in jail for giving an undercover police officer two marijuana joints.

The "Free John Now!" movement had the slogan emblazoned on T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons. An activist during Woodstock jumped on stage during a performance by The Who to shout about Sinclair's plight. Beatles star John Lennon wrote a song named for him and performed at a protest rally for him in Ann Arbor that attracted thousands in December 1971.

Three days later, he was released when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled the state marijuana rules were unconstitutional.

"It was rewarding," Sinclair said of the support. "How do you think I felt? I felt like I vindicated my position, that I was right."

The following March in 1972, Michigan was without any marijuana laws, effectively legalizing it for 22 days.

"I watched them release 43 people from prison," Sinclair said. "They’re going to do that a lot more. It’s going to be good."

Bills in the state Legislature have been introduced to allow people convicted of multiple violations of possessing a controlled substance to apply to have their records cleared of those crimes. Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer also has said she is in favor of forgiving marijuana crimes.

Sinclair has no regrets about starting on the drug in 1962 as a college student. He began carrying a medical marijuana card when it became legal in Michigan in 2008. He says he always had believed marijuana is safe and that the work is not finished yet.

"It’s never completed," he said. "It’s a good step forward, but they’re still going to mess with it. The police forces were institutionally lobbying the public against the legalization of marijuana. They're deeply committed. It's their livelihood. They won't just stop. And you have to pass a drug test to have a job. Some of it is nuts. It's insane. There's no basis in reality."

Detroit police Chief James Craig said during a press conference on Wednesday that the department had issued a framework to officers on how to enforce the law and a full training directive will be issued over the next month.

Young said said despite legalization, she’ll continue to be a marijuana caregiver. She’s one of the most respected growers in Metro Detroit with a clientele of hundreds, she said. 

 “I feel like it helps people and right now people are in a difficult spot because there’s a shortage of cannabis with an increase in prices,” she said. “The state is taking so long to issue licenses and it takes about five months to grow a single crop ... it’ll take months for people to have enough to issue. I’m a grower and have been for five years. My patients don’t have to worry.” 

Others, like guests at Jerry Millen's open house for his Walled Lake Greenhouse provisioning center, celebrated the historic day, exclaiming, "recreational marijuana is legal!"

"I never thought I would see it legalized in my life," said Millen, a television producer who has worked in the movement to make cannabis legal in Michigan for the past eight years, at his medical marijuana shop.

 Downtown, next door to Nino's Italian Bakery advertising a dozen doughnuts for $7.99, the yet-to-be-open Greenhouse provisioning center was hosting guests and educating them on the new rules.

"We don't want this place to be in the dark or a secret," said Millen, the owner. "I want that stigma to be gone. I want this to be a place where people can come and be comfortable. I want my grandma to feel comfortable. And we want to keep people out of jail."

Rex Shefferly said he believes recreational legalization will help to keep people out of jail.

"People were calling for it," said the 28-year-old engineer from Farmington Hills. "It's a good thing that we're going to get rid of the war on drugs. We have so many nonviolent offenders in our prisons."

Others, such as Michelle Thurston, 39, said they hope it will help with substance abuse. Thurston said several of her relatives have died from alcohol.

"I couldn't vote (the proposal) down," said the former Pfizer employee from Commerce Township said. "It's better than alcohol."