The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), which is charged with crafting rules and regulations for the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program, got an earful from patients and activists at a public hearing in Lansing Monday. The MDCH draft regulations are overly burdensome and sometimes conflict with the new law, patients and activists charged.
Under the state's medical marijuana law, which passed with the approval of 63% of the voters, MDCH has until April 4 to craft program regulations and begin issuing ID cards to qualified patients and caregivers. But now, after the detailed criticisms of its draft regulations, MDCH will have to go back to the drawing board -- and move fast.
Under the proposed rules, those qualified to grow and use marijuana would have to register yearly and be issued registration cards that could be revoked for criminal use or sales. Registered medical producers could supply no more than five patients each, and possess no more than 12 mature plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient.
Among the proposed rules drawing the ire of patients and advocates was one that would require patients to keep an inventory of the amount of marijuana they had on hand and one that would require patients to treat their medical marijuana supply more restrictively than they treat other medicines, including prescribed opiates, by requiring that the usable marijuana -- not just the plants -- be kept in an enclosed, locked facility. Another proposed rule, barring the use of medical marijuana in view of the public, went beyond the scope of the law, which only bars use in public, patients complained. They said that rule could lead to patients being arrested for medicating on their porches or even inside their homes if visible through a window.
"It seems to me you are attempting an end-run of what the people wanted and voted for," said Ken Shapiro of East Lansing, who uses marijuana for metastatic melanoma that, he said, has afflicted him for 31 years. Shapiro said he had endured radiation, chemotherapy, and more than 50 operations during his struggle with the disease. "Marijuana helped me get through it," he said. "It should be taken for granted that seriously ill people are not dealing drugs."
Another medical marijuana patient, Tom Higgins of Bay City, who currently cultivates his own marijuana outside the protection of the law, said proposed rules requiring disclosure and paperwork requirements could create a trail that could expose him to federal prosecution. "I won't follow the rules as they are now; I'll just keep growing marijuana as I have been," said Higgins, who suffers from hepatitis.
"The regulations are far more burdensome than necessary, directly conflict with the law that the voters enacted in several areas, and would require things not permitted by the law," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed the November initiative. "The department doesn't have the authority to create new, restrictive requirements, but that's what they've tried to do."
O'Keefe also testified at the Monday hearing, where she presented a detailed, 22-point list of required revisions to bring the draft regulations in compliance with the medical marijuana law. Voters approved the law and the safeguards it contains "without requiring self-incrimination or making life overly difficult for the seriously ill patients whom 63% of Michigan voters chose to allow to use medical marijuana without fearing arrest," she told the hearing.
O'Keefe was guardedly optimistic that MDCH would heed the complaints. "They've said they would take all comments into consideration, and we hope they will do so. We want this to be fixed and to see the program up and running as soon as possible," she said. "Until they set the rules, they won't be issuing ID cards, and until then, patients are at risk of arrest."
"The rules as proposed were overly technical and burdensome," said Greg Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA), the state's largest patient group. "But once we went through the hearings and explained our concerns, I think the state realized its rules weren't workable. We were not happy with the original rules, but we are happy the state seems to be listening."
Indeed, at the end of the hearing, State Bureau of Health Professions policy analyst Desmond Mitchell, who conducted the meeting, said the MDCH "will review everything and take a look at what revisions need to be made" in the coming weeks.
Even law enforcement complained about some of the proposed rules, especially one that would require that the medicine of patients who died or left the program be turned over to the state police. "It's burdensome for law enforcement to have someone come in, asking to destroy 12 plants," said Greg Zorotney of the State Police executive division. "Plants can grow quite big."
But Zorotney also told the panel that the ID card system should be entered into the same database as drivers' licenses, and that raised a red flag for advocates. "The state police don't want to be running around gathering up plants and medicine," said MPP's O'Keefe. "That's reasonable, and so is wanting the ability to verify ID cards 24-7. But they also want some kind of access to the patient database, and the law says that patient information is confidential. The only information they are entitled to is whether the patient is indeed registered," she said.
During the campaign to pass the initiative, the public face of patients was the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, but that MPP-funded group went out of business once its electoral objectives had been achieved. Now, MMMA, representing patients and activists who kept a low profile during the campaign, is coming to the fore.
"MPP asked us to lay low during the campaign, but we organized behind the scenes so we would be ready to go," explained Francisco. "We launched at the close of the polls on November 4. MMMA is about patients and what's right for the state and coming up with a workable medical marijuana program for the state," he said.
Now, MDCH has about three weeks to revise the rules and submit them to a legislative committee. The committee can either approve or reject the rules. If it rejects them, the legislature will have two weeks to write a bill with new rules, get it passed, and have it signed by the governor. In either case, the April 4 rollout date looms large.
"They have one more chance to get it right," said Francisco. "Once the revised rules go in, that's it. I really do believe these are just bureaucrats trying to do their job and that they will make the necessary changes. If not, it's litigation time."
"This has gotten a lot of attention in Michigan," said O'Keefe. "There was a really strong patient and advocate presence at the hearing, and there was a lot of media there. I think the department understands that it is important to get this right. If not, we are prepared to litigate," she warned.