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Medical Marijuana Politics in Michigan PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Hufnagel   
Friday, 06 May 2011 17:17

Medical Marijuana has been a hot topic in Michigan since the 1970s. For decades Michigan's citizens, politicians and interest groups have debated whether medical marijuana is a necessary drug for sufferers of debilitating illnesses or a dangerous drug that must be forbidden for its cancerous and memory affecting properties. In this time, interest groups on both sides of the issue have weighed in on the debate and pushed toward various policy reforms on this issue. The Michigan legislature has also taken sides on this issue. While this does not tend to be a strongly partisan issue in Michigan, individuals within the Michigan legislature clearly have mutually exclusive intentions for medical marijuana's future in Michigan. In the end, the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act was passed in 2008. This was viewed as a win by many medical marijuana supporters, but the issues of regulation and implementation of the act are still being discussed and many caretakers and patients still commonly experience entanglements with law enforcement over grey areas of the act. One Flint area caretaker explained his point of view by saying, "the local ordnances still discriminate and profile against the people who use medical marihuana. Rather then looking at it as a medication, they are still viewing it as a common street drug rather then educating the authorities and society about marihuana." Overall, the issue of medical marijuana is one that has divided Michigan interest groups and policymakers for decades and will likely continue to be a divisive issue for years to come.

Before discussing the current state of medical marijuana in Michigan, I think it's important to understand the history of medical marijuana politics in Michigan. In 1979 Michigan joined 14 other states when a medical marijuana bill was passed allowing glaucoma and cancer patients with prescriptions from specifically licensed physicians to receive marijuana for their condition. The marijuana was to be provided by a federal source, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a branch of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), itself a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. This quickly became a problem because the marijuana provided was not nearly enough to fulfill the patients needs, in 1980 Michigan was reported to be 500,000 "marijuana cigarettes" short of demand, and most of the marijuana provided was of very low quality, consistently falling short of the %2 THC content stipulated in Michigan's Cancer IND. As a matter of fact, in one case inspected marijuana was four years old, well beyond it's natural expiration date.

The 1979 bill contained a sunset clause for November 1982 that was later extended to 1987 where the program ended. By this time, very little support remained for the program within and without the medical marijuana community as those who were in need of medical marijuana were obtaining it from illegal sources because of NIDA's failure to provide the medicine they needed. In 2008, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act was passed, a bill that purposely avoided the 1979 Act's problems by creating a system where many caregivers can grow 12 marijuana plants each for 5 patients anywhere in an enclosed, locked facility. This, of course, could include growing on the caregiver's property which I understand to be a common practice. This allows Michigan caretakers who have experience with growing quality marijuana to provide medical marijuana to qualifying patients, solving both the quantity and quality problems of the 1979 act.

One reason this issue has been so enduring is that while the status quo is anti-marijuana, the interest groups generally have a pro medical marijuana bias, and these groups make sure that medical marijuana remains a major political discussion. This can be most easily seen when looking at the number of interest groups and the amount of funding on each side of the issue. On the pro medical marijuana side, there are several well-funded state interest groups, some of which are a part of larger federal groups, like Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Michigan branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Michigan NORML), whereas on the anti-medical marijuana side I could only find two groups opposed, Save Our Society from drugs (SOS) and Citizens Protecting Michigan's Kids (CPMK). SOS is a federal group that doesn't spend much of its focus on Michigan particularly, and CPMK is poorly funded. The Detroit Free Press writes about the "significant funding edge" in 2008 saying that MPP raised $1.5 million toward passage of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, and the opposition, CPMK, raised $125,500. For these reasons, at least among interest groups, medical marijuana has been very successful on the pro medical marijuana side of the debate.

One particularly interesting pro medical marijuana group is the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA). Out of the medical marijuana groups in Michigan, MMMA is perhaps the most patient-oriented. Their mission statement says that they are dedicated to "providing services, advocacy and information to medical marijuana patients, caregivers, health care providers and their community" . From looking at the articles posted on the news section of their website, I got the idea that they see patients as victims of the government that need defending, most articles being about patient's rights being challenged often by police infringing on their rights. This idea is supported by a statement made early in my interview with Greg Francisco, the founder and former executive director of MMMA. Greg said it was the reason he got involved in medical marijuana advocacy in Michigan, "my government treated me like a criminal, and I thought that was wrong. So I got involved in the PRA". This he describes as his first step in his history of ardent medical marijuana advocacy. His explicitly stated opinion reflected the general sense I gathered from the organization he founded.
Because of their patient focus, MMMA provides a cornucopia of services to their members. One service MMMA provides is helping patients find lawyers if necessary. The website lists two members of it's advisory board as lawyers ready to help as well as a few law firms. MMMA also helps connect caregivers and patients. There is a section of their website devoted solely to this purpose. MMMA also has on it's website a news section to keep its members informed about current issues. Furthermore, MMMA hosts periodic training sessions to give information to growers, and plans to make these a regular event. The website says, "A member of our Training Committee is putting together a 12 week, hands on ‘Seed to Weed' program" .

While MMMA is largely focused on services for patients and caregivers, they also have a small influence on legal and legislative action. Although not explicitly stated, based on the focus of their website, MMMA spends more time trying to raise awareness, and assist in court cases than trying to influence legislative action, working more with the public than trying to directly influence government. MMMA has on their website 2 upcoming rallies and protests planned this year that concerned members can attend. As for legislative action, when I asked Greg Francisco whether MMMA has lobbyists he said that they have a few volunteer lobbyists who go to Lansing when big issues arise, but do not have any full-time lobbyists. Overall, MMMA mostly tries to affect policy through the public rather than through direct governmental action.

Another interest group that has worked toward pro medical marijuana policy reform is the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). MPP rather than having a patient focus like MMMA, is a very politically involved interest group. MPP has on its website a list of goals as its mission statement: "1) Increase public support for non-punitive, non-coercive marijuana policies 2) Identify and activate supporters of non-punitive, non-coercive marijuana policies 3) Change state laws to reduce or eliminate penalties for the medical and non-medical use of marijuana and 4) Gain influence in Congress." These statements show that MPP's goals are policy reform, and are therefore true to their title of "Marijuana Policy Project".

Furthermore, MPP has a Michigan branch that was quite active in passing the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of 2008. In my interview with Greg Francisco, who was involved in the MPP's effort's to pass the initiative at the time, said that before the passage of the initiative MPP "became the alpha dog" and "took control of the message". MPP stipulated that Michigan NORML had to keep out of the efforts, and in return led the signature gathering, the messaging campaigns and everything else that is involved in gathering public support for passing legislation. MPP was clearly a major player in the passage of the 2008 act, and because of their greater political involvement than MMMA, and their dominance of Michigan NORML during the 2008 initiative efforts, MPP appears to have been the most effective group for political reform in Michigan in past legislation.
On the opposite side of the issue, another highly politically involved interest group, Save Our Society from drugs (SOS), is a national group solely devoted to "help[ing] Americans defeat ballot initiatives, statutory proposals and other attempts to "medicalize" unsafe, ineffective and unapproved drugs such as marijuana..." This group seems to spend a considerable amount of time raising awareness, following research results and following media coverage of drug policy issues. One of the methods they use to raise awareness is staying involved in the media outlets. In my content analysis research I have come across some cases where SOS has worked with newspaper media to present the anti-drug reform side of the issue. SOS also acts as a major source of information for access by citizens and politicians.

The other major group that tried to prevent the passage of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act was Citizens Protecting Michigan's Kids (CPMK). The first thing that stood out to me about CPMK was that they were the group constantly talking about California's "pot shops" and comparing Michigan's medical marijuana act to its much less restrictive Californian counterpart. As a matter of fact, their website when it was running was called "NoPotShops.com", a title that angered pro medical marijuana groups. This is an argument that almost every pro medical marijuana source I read started with discounting. The spokesman for this group and the source of many contentious statements, Judge Bill Schuette was very active in involving himself in press conferences, media involvement and other forms of public outreach. According to a pro medical marijuana website, "StopTheDrugWar.com", Schuette is claims that "Michigan will turn into California with its ‘chaos, pot dealers in storefronts and millions of dollars being dumped into the criminal black market,'" and that "the initiative ‘gives people who are addicted a way to say I have a medical problem'" Schuette's statements added fire to a heated debate about whether medical marijuana would improve Michigan's social and medical state of affairs.

After passage of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, the issues of regulation and access of medical marijuana became important issues. This changed the focus of the political discussion. Groups like MMMA were created for assisting patients and caregivers with access, and many legislators immediately began writing bills for regulation. Perhaps the most well known regulatory bill was proposed by Senator Rick Jones (R), Grand Ledge on January 19, 2011. Senate bill number 17 was intended to ban marijuana clubs/bars. Senator Jones told the media on various occasions that this bill was intended to keep pot smokers off the road after visiting these clubs/bars. In the bill, marijuana clubs/bars are defined as places where groups or individuals gather to use medical marijuana where a fee is required for participating. The fate of this bill is pending.

Another legislator significantly involved in medical marijuana policy was Republican Senator Gerald Van Woerkom from Michigan state senate's 34th district (includes Muskegon). On June 3, 2009 Senator Van Woerkom proposed three senate bills, numbers 616, 617 and 618, all of which were amendments to the 2008 Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. Senate Bill 616 allowed marijuana to be dispensed as a schedule 2 drug as opposed to schedule 1 and extends protection from arrests and other penalties to physicians and pharmacists prescribing and dispensing medical marijuana. This served the function of protecting Michigan's physicians and pharmacists from unfair prosecution they had been receiving as a result of a lack of specificity in the 2008 act. Senate Bill 617 specifies the act of a legal caregiver providing marijuana for an illegal patient as a class G felony punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and a maximum fine of $2000. Once again, this bill attempts to clarify a lack of specificity in the 2008 act.

Senate Bill 618 was quite large and did many things including to classify marijuana as a schedule 2 drug when dispensed as medical marijuana, require a license for medical marijuana growing facilities, require that the Department of Community Health (DCH) license only 10 facilities per year, establish a fee of $2500 and annual renewal requirement for the licensing, require the DCH to perform annual inspections of medical marijuana growing facilities, require that the DCH promulgate rules and requirements for these facilities and establish a misdemeanor penalty for those who fail to comply to the facilities requirements. While Senate bills 616 and 617 were simply clarifying what I would expect to be generally understood, Senate bill 618 proposed a major change in the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act that would reconstruct our entire system of dispensing marijuana legally in Michigan. That month, the bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I could not find that any work has been more recently done on it, and the bill has yet to be brought to the floor again.

After the proposal of Senate Bill 618, an uproar from the medical marijuana community ensued. Patients and caregivers saw this as an attack on their ability to access their medicine. When the first Michigan Medical Marijuana bill was passed in 1979, the state depended on the federal government to provide the medical marijuana, but it was found that this centralized acquisition did not work. Many patients viewed Senate Bill 618 as an attempt to create the same problem in 2009 in order to sabotage the program. In my interview with Greg Francisco, he told me that the in their efforts to shape the 2008 Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, "our intent was that those be casual patient-to-patient transfers, not for profit...we also wanted to have it real disbursed, all the productions, instead of having a few big farms we've got lots of lots of little ones every where. And that makes it hard to arrest them all, it makes harder targets". Moreover Senate bill 618 goes directly against that intention.

In addition to the affects of interest groups and legislators on Michigan medical marijuana policy, the state of the media is also worth investigation. To do this I performed a content analysis on 16 newspaper articles that were published on the issue of Michigan medical marijuana in the month prior to the 2008 election. I sought to explore whether a bias was shown by these media sources in a straightforward count of positive, negative and neutral comments about medical marijuana. I also kept track of whether recreational use, marijuana abuse, medical benefits and a direct call to vote were found in the article. In addition, I did a word choice analysis to see if there was a correlation between words used to describe both marijuana and medical marijuana patients and the overall bias of the paper.

I found that overall there was a slightly negative bias to the newspaper articles with more net negative articles than net positive articles (9 to 7), an average bias score of -0.188 and a median bias score of -0.5. Furthermore, the most biased article had a score of -7. As for the word choice analysis,

I found there was surprisingly no correlation between words used and the overall bias of the paper. I also found that talking about neither recreational use, marijuana abuse nor medical benefits betrayed a bias in either direction, though every paper mentioned medical benefits, even the most negatively biased articles. My hypothesis is that it is simply hard to discuss medical marijuana without mentioning that it has medicinal properties. Additionally, none of the articles contained a direct call to vote. Overall, there was a slightly negative, likely insignificant, media bias, and although we cannot say whether this affected the public opinion, the media can have an influence on public opinion, and is therefore worth consideration.

In conclusion, medical marijuana politics have divided Michigan interest groups and policymakers for decades and will likely continue to be a major political discussion for years to come. The first medical marijuana bill in Michigan was passed in 1979, but did not survive because it required that the marijuana come from a federal source that failed to provide both the quantity and the quality of marijuana to suit Michigan's needs. While there are big players on both sides of the issue, Michigan's interest groups have recently had a pro medical marijuana bias, with both superior funding and a superior number of allies. While this issue does not seem to be largely partisan, there are individual legislators that are dedicated to changing policy related to this issue. Today this comes in the form of regulation with bills like Senator Rick Jones' SB17 and Senator Van Woerkom's SB616, SB617 and SB618. In the end, medical marijuana is an important issue to Michigan residents, and I am sure both sides of the issue would agree that how we handle the issue of medical marijuana has real consequences. For this reason, many groups and individuals have sought, and will continue to seek, to have their voices heard on this subject through interest groups, legislation, court cases and raising awareness in the process we understand as democracy.

 

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