“Medical” Marijuana

I recently attended the winter conference for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.  One of the sessions was on the current status of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act which became law in December of 2008. Personally, I think that the people of Michigan believed they were doing a compassionate thing for ill people when they voted to pass this law.  Unfortunately it is very poorly written and set up all kinds of conflicts never envisioned.  It is more complicated than it seems.  The PBS program Frontline did a great documentary on the subject of medical marijuana nationally that examined some of the issues and challenges, The Pot Republic.  It was recently updated with current information on what is happening in California around this issue. 

The first and biggest challenge is that marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance by the federal government and the current administration has indicated that they have no plans to change that.  Many people I’ve spoken to voted for the law because they believed it would be dispensed by pharmacists out of pharmacies.  There is no special form of marijuana that is “medical” — it is all just marijuana.  That classification basically says that it has no legitimate use.  So here comes the problem of how to resolve federal law and state law.   federal law governs the work of pharmacists and pharmacies.  Because of the Schedule 1 designation no doctor can prescribe marijuana –they can only recommend.  So the question is does federal law preempt state law?  I believe that it does. 

Another aspect that has become tremendously problematic for local communities was the failure of the law to indicate how “patients” would get the marijuana.  Some people believed that it was a new industry and opened retail locations or contacted their local communities intending to open retail locations since it cannot be sold in regular pharmacies.  I actually visited one of the very first dispensaries in Ypsilanti in early 2009.  It was a very interesting place.  Some of our tour group had a mental picture the clinic as a medical facility but that wasn’t what we found at all.  People were using on site, they were producing food products with no regard to packaging and food purity laws and regulations, there were people loitering outside and they clearly had some fears since they were installing a security system and very thick security doors.  What did that mean to the neighborhood?

The problem of dispensaries was being felt statewide by communities who were trying to figure out how to deal with dispensaries.  Ultimately it was solved here when our Oakland County Prosecutor, Jessica Cooper determined that since the law didn’t mention clinics, or compassion clubs or any other business aspect –that dispensaries were not permitted.  Ultimately in June 2011, the Attorney General, Bill Schutte followed suit and determined the same for the entire state. 

And what about the rise in drug impaired crashes?  I don’t think the people of Michigan had the intent to let drug impaired drivers on the street.  I have heard the argument (by the “chemist” at the Ypsilanti dispensary) that drivers using marijuana are much safer drivers.  I definitely can’t agree with that one.  For those of us involved in safety and enforcement, how do we determine how much marijuana in a person’s system is too much to drive?  For alcohol use that is set in statute:  .08% of alcohol in the blood has been medically determined to be the point at which persons are too impaired to drive.   For marijuana there is no such standard. We don’t really know how long it stays in a person’s system and we have no information on dosage and concentration and its impact on drivers.  Growers have been refining their methods to produce marijuana with higher and higher concentrations of THC. 

One other disturbing trend has been the rise in marijuana use among teenagers –I had a mother call me not long ago wanting help with her daughter.  She wanted to persuade the teenage girl that pot use wasn’t good for her–the daughter argued that it is medicine and therefore it is safe for her to use.  A recent Huffington Post article quoted a University of Michigan study

Finally, we know from other surveys like the University of Michigan Monitoring the Future study that the perceived harm for smoking marijuana occasionally or regularly has been decreasing among the 8th grade since 2007. Social disapproval for smoking marijuana once or twice, occasionally, and regularly has been decreasing among 8th graders since 2007. That has translated into a major increase in use, which is no surprise to researchers who know that attitudes effect youth use rates.

In Michigan, since April 2009 over 222,000 applications and renewals for medical marijuana cards have been received by the state and over 131,000 have been approved.