Medical marijuana enforcement hazy as state forms rules
Lansing— The road to the Michigan Capitol is lined with marijuana.
It’s almost impossible to drive to the capital dome without seeing scores of shop signs emblazoned with bright green medical crosses and plucky names — BudzRUs, TruReleaf, Best Buds, Kind Provisioning Center — all along Michigan Avenue and the city at large. A constant stream of people filter in and out of the pot shops.
In major cities such as Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Lansing and Flint, medical marijuana dispensaries are largely left alone.
In other areas, however, police follow federal and state law, in effect treating medical marijuana as an illegal narcotic and a public safety issue. Regional state police drug teams have raided and closed dispensaries with the help of county prosecutors across the state, including in Grand Traverse, Kent, Oscoda, Otsego, St. Clair and Wexford counties.
This unequal treatment occurs as Michigan implements new regulations on everything the industry does, from growing to transporting to selling. On Dec. 15, those trying to get into or stay in business can submit applications for an official state license.
It has been unclear since voters approved a 2008 referendum allowing marijuana for medical use what the state’s law actually permitted. In 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court decided that dispensaries are illegal.
But the ruling has left some communities without local access to medical pot while others have a glut. Still others face legal fees and prison.
“I’ve shed tears over this. This has never been about money for me,” said Chad Morrow, a 39-year-old Gaylord resident and former dispensary owner facing up to seven years in prison. “To have that taken away — it’s disheartening and heartbreaking, honestly.”
Although Morrow obtained permission from the Gaylord Planning Commission and the City Council to open a dispensary called Cloud 45, it was raided multiple times by a regional state police drug unit before he closed it in 2016 pending criminal charges.
Mixed messages from the state also helped inspire at least one medical marijuana crackdown in Grand Traverse County, the most recent county-wide enforcement action against dispensaries operating for years. Police sometimes conduct raids even if the prosecutor doesn’t play ball, said lawyers specializing in marijuana cases.
“I think Traverse City had the largest concentration of places north of Lansing, so it was the biggest target,” said Matt Abel, a criminal defense attorney in Detroit and an expert on marijuana cases. “Why they’re doing it now when these places have existed for years? It (makes us think) it has something to do with the upcoming licensing.
“They see this as an opportunity to clear the playing field and the patients be damned.”
Eight dispensaries closed
The prosecutor in Grand Traverse County helped close all eight of the county’s dispensaries in October after state regulators said staying open past the Dec. 15 application opening would hurt such shops’ chances of getting a license to do business legally.
In November, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs changed course and issued an emergency rule telling pot shops that staying open past mid-December wouldn’t hurt their licensing chances. But Grand Traverse County prosecutor Robert Cooney already had issued cease-and-desist letters to the four medical marijuana shops in Traverse City and four others around the county.
Capt. Michael Caldwell, State Police commander for the region, said a regional state police drug unit called Traverse Narcotics Team, or TNT, acted “because dispensaries are illegal.”
Caldwell would not say why the probe began in September when the dispensaries were open for business for years beforehand.
“No, I can’t comment on any specifics of those investigations,” he said. “Once these owners obtain legal license to operate a dispensary, then they have nothing to fear. However, until that happens, they’re in violation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, and they’re subject to enforcement action.”
Cooney said his cease-and-desist letters were in part prodded by comments from state Michigan Medical Marihuana Licensing Board member Donald Bailey, a retired state police sergeant from Traverse City who worked in drug enforcement. At an August meeting, Bailey said he wanted to close all dispensaries before licenses were issued to be in line with the Supreme Court ruling.
Bailey’s motion was met with sustained public outcry before LARA told the board at a later meeting that it does not have the authority to shut down dispensaries.
But Bailey’s comments and LARA’s prior warning that provisioning centers could sabotage their licensing chances by staying open past the mid-December application deadline led Cooney to believe the state wanted them shuttered.
“To me, (that) indicated that the state really wants these illegally operating business shut down before the new law,” he said, indicating he thought the state and localities wanted to collect taxes and licensing fees from legal businesses under new state rules.
Cooney informed the dispensaries in his letters that state law does not allow them to sell medical marijuana. The law allows a “caregiver” to cultivate and grow medical marijuana for up to five patients.
First Lt. Josh Lator, a state police commander at the Houghton Lake Post in northern Michigan, said police have been monitoring the Grand Traverse dispensaries for some time, and “the biggest reason” they acted now was “because every one of the places that the team contacted ... were operating in violation of Michigan law.”
Licensed ‘caregivers’ lacking
Although dispensaries are currently illegal, many patients have argued that finding medical pot would be difficult if all the shops closed.
Michigan lacks enough licensed “caregivers” to provide for all of its patients. There are 272,215 patients and 43,266 caregivers in Michigan — or more than six patients for every caregiver. Caregivers can only grow medical marijuana for up to five patients each.
State police spokeswoman Shanon Banner said the department keeps no statistics on its medical marijuana dispensary raids, and that enforcement occurs on a “case-by-case” basis. She declined to say why some state police units crack down on dispensaries while others don’t.
“Sometimes enforcement is the result of local ordinance; sometimes it’s related to other criminal activity,” Banner said in an email.
But dispensaries across the state sell marijuana to more than five patients without legal repercussion.
“The county prosecutors let them do it,” said Barton Morris, a Royal Oak criminal defense attorney specializing in marijuana cases.
Pro-marijuana lawyers like Abel and Morris say the patchwork of enforcement happens in the absence of centralized state police orders. They say ambitious local narcotics units such as TNT work to find county prosecutors who are willing to cooperate.
By contrast, Washtenaw County prosecutor Brian Mackie said he deals with much more pressing issues. Local police and county prosecutors are just “inundated with domestic violence, murder, rape, armed robbery,” he said.
“Marijuana is not a No. 1 priority in the county,” said Mackie, who indicated he does not favor legalizing recreational use of marijuana. “We evaluate cases that come to us. We don’t get a great many of them.”
Registered business targeted
In 2016, 12 dispensaries in Oscoda and Otsego counties were raided by regional state police narcotics task forces.
In August of that year, the owners and workers of a dispensary called Northern Michigan Caregivers in Lewiston turned themselves into police following warrants issued for their arrest on charges that stemmed from running the dispensary.
Delbert Curio, 59, ran the shop with his wife, Brandi, for nearly four years before a judge issued a search warrant following two “controlled buys” to prove the dispensary actually sells medical marijuana.
Curio even took pains to register his business with the Oscoda County Clerk, according to a state police incident report.
“Delbert and Brandi (Curio) operated the business very openly and obviously with the belief that their transactions and activities would be protected by the Michigan Medical Marijuana (sic) Act,” defense lawyer Morris wrote in a 2016 sentencing memo.
The Straits Area Narcotics Unit still seized about $2,700 in cash and all of the shop’s marijuana and marijuana derivatives, such as liquid THC and edibles. The county prosecutor initially threatened Curio with up to 50 years in prison for delivering and manufacturing marijuana, operating or maintaining a laboratory and maintaining a drug house, according to a court document.
Instead, Delbert ended up getting four years of probation and permission from a local judge to use medical marijuana to treat his advanced lung cancer.
It’s incomprehensible that state police are still busting people as other state officials attempt to work out the regulatory details that will lay the groundwork for huge profits in the marijuana industry, said Michael Komorn, a Farmington Hills-based criminal defense lawyer specializing in marijuana cases.
“It can’t be reconciled with any kind of logic,” Komorn said.