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Sessions’ memo a new worry for medical pot in Michigan

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan is continuing to more tightly regulate the medical marijuana industry even as the U.S. Justice Department ended Thursday its lenient stance toward states that have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a one-page memo rescinding a 2013 Obama-era directive putting marijuana enforcement on the backburner in states that have allowed it either recreationally or medically. Michigan voters in a 2008 referendum voted to legalize pot for medical use, and the state is now beginning to accept applications for a myriad of businesses looking to break into the pot industry.

In his memo, Sessions said he was reasserting federal laws that “reflect Congress’s determination that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that marijuana activity is a serious crime.”

Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs spokesman David Harns, said the department will continue accepting and granting applications as planned after the state Legislature prompted the department to unveil new regulations following years of uncertainty about what was actually legal.

A Michigan Supreme Court ruling in 2013 found that medical marijuana dispensaries were illegal. A new state law is allowing state-licensed dispensaries and other medical pot-related businesses into communities that want them.

The federal development was met with mixed reaction by local law enforcement and adds more anxiety and uncertainty for marijuana industry officials in Michigan.

“It may have a chilling affect on the enthusiasm of some people in the business sector, but I think the business opportunities continue to expand and that the market is inevitable,” said Matthew Abel, a Detroit criminal defense attorney who specializes in marijuana issues and an outspoken pro-pot advocate.

The Justice Department’s move came a few hours before interim Detroit U.S. Attorney Matthew J. Schneider was sworn into office Thursday afternoon. Sessions on Wednesday appointed Schneider, who didn’t immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the memo.

Sessions’ memo will allow federal prosecutors such as Schneider to decide how aggressively to enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana.

It’s unclear if local law enforcement would be called upon to assist in a medical marijuana crackdown. But Blaine Koops, executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, questioned how local sheriffs’ departments would find the money and time pitch in.

“We will support law enforcement agencies that legally request our assistance – we don’t pick and choose the laws we enforce,” Koops said. “But, again, this takes resources, which many sheriffs’ offices are already struggling to maintain just for basic direct immediate response services.”

“I can’t see any sheriff taking unilateral action,” he added.

Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon said his department would be involved if asked by federal agents. But it’s more likely that little will change in the county, Napoleon said, where Detroit is a hot spot for medical marijuana dispensaries.

“We don’t do a lot of enforcement at all in that area as it relates to medical marijuana. I don’t see how it would impact us much at all unless we are asked to assist federal agents in their enforcement efforts or some other local district,” he said.

Anti-marijuana groups praised the memo.

“This is a good day for public health. The days of safe harbor for multimillion-dollar pot investments are over,” said Kevin A. Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser and head of the Virginia-based anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

“DOJ’s move will slow down the rise of Big Marijuana and stop the massive infusion of money going to fund pot candies, cookies, ice creams, and other kid-friendly pot edibles. Investor, banker, funder beware.”

By the end of last year, Michigan had received 82 applications for medical marijuana licenses after the state began accepting them Dec. 15. Fourteen were complete applications and 68 were ‘pre-qualification’ licenses, meaning that businesses applied for approval to set up shop – whether a dispensary or a grower or transporter – before they have a specific location in mind.

Under preliminary regulations, dispensaries and other pot businesses can legally do business if the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs grants them a license and the municipality where they locate approves of medical pot businesses.

About 1 percent of the state’s more than 2,500 local municipal governments have approved medical marijuana operations, according to a list compiled by Weedmaps, a California-based company that maps dispensary locations for patients.

In some areas of the state such as Traverse City, dispensaries that have operated for years have been shut down by regional State Police narcotics units. Elsewhere, such as in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing, dispensaries are largely left alone.

Andrea Bitely, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, said any new prosecution priorities would be left up to attorneys for the federal government.

Bitely said the state’s attorney general’s office gets involved in cases where the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act is violated, “specifically for large-scale growing operations that violate current statute.”

A group seeking to legalize marijuana for recreational use in Michigan turned in about 365,000 signatures in November for a 2018 ballot measure. The Michigan Bureau of Elections is reviewing the signatures to determine if at least 252,523 are valid, as required to advance the initiated legislation.

The ballot question would go to the voters in November if the Legislature doesn’t act on the measure.

Ballot committee spokesman Josh Hovey said the Trump administration’s shift signals a greater need for the ballot proposal to be approved.

“Ultimately, for our campaign, it makes it even more important that a ‘yes’ vote happens in 2018 so that we can send a very strong message to Washington … that cannabis prohibition has been a tremendous failure,” Hovey said.