Mich. patient fees pay for pot enforcement, raid gear

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Medical marijuana patient fees are helping finance aggressive enforcement efforts in Metro Detroit, where local sheriff’s departments spent more than $600,000 in state grant funding on overtime pay, raid gear, dispensary stakeouts and vehicles used to haul contraband pot.

Legislators created the grant program two years ago, allowing county sheriffs to use excess money that had accumulated in the Michigan medical marijuana fund for enforcement, education or communication related to the voter-approved 2008 law.

Law enforcement officials say the grants have helped them crack down on criminals operating outside the law. But critics say it is “worse than ironic” the state is using mandatory patient and caregiver registration fees to perpetuate a “war on drugs” that can ensnare the same patients who are supposed to be protected.

“You can’t give the guys who have been kicking in our doors and taking all of our property with unfettered power — and they still have it — this money,” said Charmie Gholson, an activist and founder of Michigan Moms United.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard’s office reported spending $282,662 on overtime pay for investigators, a four-day “indoor marijuana school” for local police agencies and raid vests. It also covered a 2016 Ram ProMaster cargo van, a 2016 GMC 2500 HD pickup and a cargo trailer to haul plants from illegal growing operations.

Bouchard said the funding has allowed his office to obtain “both the equipment and some of the training to be in the best position to carry out our regulatory part of the equation.”

He compared patient and caregiver registration charges to other “user fees” imposed by the state, including Detroit casino taxes implemented after voters in 1996 agreed to allow up to three casinos in the city.

“The gambling comes from gamblers,” Bouchard said. “Your gas tax comes from drivers. That’s a policy decision the Legislature made. We just think there obviously has to be a funding stream for a regulatory process.”

Grant availability is based on the number of marijuana registry cards issued in a county. Although many sheriffs did not apply this year, the Wayne, Oakland and Macomb offices spent a combined $618,186 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 15.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon’s office reported spending $275,195, mostly for “street level investigations” of medical marijuana, according to a report to state legislators. The great majority of the aid financed enforcement personnel, but some paid for eight Tasers and eight body cameras.

Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham’s office reported spending $60,329, the third highest statewide. The grant cash helped pay for public forums explaining the law to residents, special investigative staff, training and “equipment” to aid the investigations, including laptop computers, according to a report.

Registry fees rile critics

Despite the participation by Metro Detroit departments, the 2-year-old medical marijuana enforcement grant program has been slow to get off the ground. Four of 83 county sheriffs applied for grants in 2015, followed by 18 this year.

More counties are anticipated to participate in the current fiscal year that began Oct. 1, said Michael Loepp, a spokesman for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that runs the program.

“We continue to work with the counties to streamline the grant process. We know there is a short statutory turnaround time for the submission of applications and getting the final contracts to the counties so they can spend the funds in 2017.”

The program is funded through the Michigan Medical Marihuana Fund, created as part of the voter-approved law. Unspent grant money, a continued increase in patient registrations and relatively low administration costs have combined to leave the fund flush with cash.

Registry fees generated $7.1 million in fiscal year 2015, but LARA spent $3.2 million administering the program, Loepp said. The fund balance sits at more than $30 million, although the agency is still “closing out” financial activities from the last fiscal year, he said.

The agency lowered registration fees in early 2015, dropping two-year costs for most patients from $100 to $60. But medical marijuana attorney Matt Abel said the state should continue reducing fees if the fund is so flush with cash.

“I really don’t think it’s appropriate to fund law enforcement on the backs of medical marijuana patients,” Abel said. “… It’s really a hidden tax on patients.”

Gholson said she is “mortified” the state is using patient fees to fund law enforcement efforts, calling it an example of “victim blaming.”

“They’re using SWAT to investigate our compliance with the act, when what LARA needs to do is set up a system whereby they protect these victims and caregivers,” she said.

The state’s medical marijuana program is set to undergo major changes under a dispensary licensing law set to take effect in late 2017. Legislators recently appropriated $8.5 million from the registry fee fund to help LARA set up the new regulatory framework.

Lapsed funding

Michigan sheriffs could have qualified for $3 million in medical marijuana grant funding last year, but departments requested less than $1.2 million combined. In many cases, they couldn’t spend all the money for which they qualified by the end of the fiscal year.

Oakland County spent $41,063 less than authorized, telling legislators it had “a very short window of opportunity to spend the grant funds” after state approval. Wayne County did not spend $198,061.

But when the counties did spend the grant money, most of it was for enforcement efforts against illegal marijuana operations.

The Oakland County grant money allowed investigators on a “narcotics enforcement team” to spend extra time investigating drug trafficking organizations “responsible for criminal acts” not allowed under the medical pot law and “supported investigative techniques that would not have otherwise been available,” according to an office report.

The special unit responded to 161 complaints involving marijuana distribution between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, according to the Oakland County report. Investigators executed 59 related search warrants, 19 “knock and talks” and probed the Sky High dispensary in Pontiac. The unit confiscated 1,112 pounds of marijuana and 2,961 marijuana plants during that period.

Michigan law allows caregivers to grow up to 12 plants each for five registered patients, who can themselves possess 2.5 ounces of processed marijuana or 12 plants. But Oakland County investigators encountered patients and caregivers with “large amounts of overages,” Lt. Brent Miles wrote. “I believe one of the issues is that caregivers are becoming extremely proficient at cultivating marijuana.”

In Wayne County, the sheriff’s office did undercover surveillance on 32 medical marijuana dispensaries in Detroit. Special unit personnel reported stopping and investigating 634 vehicles leaving medical marijuana dispensaries during that period.

“Offenders that did not have a medical marijuana card were processed on scene,” according to the report. “Individuals that (carried) medical marijuana cards were checked to ensure they were transporting in accordance with Michigan law and then released.”

All told, the department said 467 vehicles were impounded during the first eight months of what was called “operation push off.” Officers issued 30 tickets, confiscated 49,993 grams of marijuana, 400 grams of liquid THC and two guns.

In September alone, Wayne County reported impounding 86 vehicles, issuing 34 tickets, confiscating one gun and 1,039 grams of marijuana, serving three felony warrants and arresting one person for a violation of the state’s concealed carry weapon law.

While Macomb County officials focused on law enforcement too, they held a series of public forums explaining the medical marijuana law to residents. The informational sessions were “met with mixed reviews,” Detective James Onyski wrote.

Caregivers “were for the most part cooperative and willing to discuss how they could improve their respective operations,” he wrote. “The public in general was less than enthusiastic” when they learned caregivers “can maintain a marihuana grow operation in their neighborhood and/or community as long as they were in compliance of the law.”