Clearing the law

Medical marijuana patients demand clarity on concentrates and dispensaries


Lisa Conine smokes marijuana everyday. 

The Perry senior doesn't smoke weed to get high. She said she uses it to heal her body. 

Every two weeks, Crohn's disease kept Conine from living the life she wanted to lead.

Crohn's disease is a inflammatory bowel disease that cannot be cured. According to Mayo Clinic, it causes inflammation in the lining of the digestive tract, which leads to debilitating abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. 

The inflammation caused by Crohn's disease often spreads deep into the layers of affected bowel tissue. Conine said the symptoms of her disease caused her excessive inflammation surges that last two weeks.

After a year of using medical marijuana, Conine said the drug has helped stifle the pain of chronic disease.

"I was honest with a licensed healthcare professional about my use of marijuana before getting my card because I needed to see if it would actually treat my symptoms," Conine said. "I talked to (my doctor) about how I immediately noticed the pain relief in my stomach."

Conine is part of the 1 percent of medical marijuana patients in Michigan. According to the Medical Marijuana Patient's Policy Project, almost 100,000 patients use medical marijuana in the state.

The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed in 2008. The law allows marijuana to be "recommended" by healthcare professionals who will determine if a patient's chronic pain can be relieved by the drug. The act allows patients to have two and half ounces of marijuana and 12 marijuana plants. 

The legislation allows the medical use of marijuana; "to provide protections for the medical use of marihuana; to provide for a system of registry identification cards for qualifying patients and primary caregivers; to impose a fee for registry application and renewal; to provide for the promulgation of rules; to provide for the administration of this act; to provide for enforcement of this act; to provide for affirmative defenses; and to provide for penalties for violations of this act."

Michigan's Licensing and Regulatory Affairs processed 92,652 new medical marijuana applications in 2014. Patients must get the medical marijuana cards renewed every two years. 

After seeing doctors and being prescribed pharmaceuticals to treat her disease, Conine said she noticed her immune system weakened. She said the antibiotics caused her body to become prone to bronchitis, which she said she expected to get every year. 

"I was really weak when I'd get sick. It was easy to get bronchitis because of it," she said. "After medicating (with marijuana) and eating well, I haven't gotten bronchitis once. I haven't even gotten a cold the past two winters."

Crohn's disease cannot be cured. Conine said she gets a routine check up on her symptoms and disease every spring. She said her doctors refuse to believe the drug has eased her symptoms. 

"I’ll try to tell them it's the treatment and they’ll disagree and tell me, ‘Well maybe you didn’t have Crohn's disease in the first place.’ Now there aren’t symptoms present in my body to signal the disease is still present," she said. 

Conine said she still gets random flareups because of her disease, but after using medical marijuana the flareups are eased. 

Concentrates illegal to medical marijuana patients

State law prohibits physicians from prescribing patients medical marijuana because it's a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. It has no accepted medical use in treatment in the U.S. There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Conine is among medical marijuana patients who believe the law has two unclear areas. One is that concentrates such as oil are not legal. The second is the legality of dispensaries.

According to Section 7106 of the Public Health Code, the definition of medical marijuana does not include mature stalks of the plant, fiber produced from the stalks, oil or cake made from the seeds of the plant. This section states the only legal kind of medical marijuana is the smokeable form. 

Legalizing non-smokable marijuana is a large concern for pediatric patients, said Robin Schneider, legislative chairwoman of the National Patients Rights Association, a Michigan-based medical marijuana advocacy group. Pediatric patients are unable to receive treatment because they cannot smoke it. 

"A parent came to me after a meeting and asked for help. I realized this is something we need to change," Schneider said. "That's when we introduced the Extract Bill (House Bill 5104)."

The bill was introduced to the House in 2013. The amendment would include the concentrated form of cannabis to be of legal use for medical marijuana patients. A committee is now discussing the amendment. 

Dispensary legality 

Brandon McQueen, founder of the Care Share Network in Mount Pleasant, said studying the law is the first step in helping advocate for patients. McQueen helped spearhead the petition to decriminalize marijuana in Mount Pleasant. He previously owned Compassionate Apothecary.

"I started studying the law every day for hours once I realized I wanted to be a part of the cannabis industry," McQueen said. "After petitioning, collecting signatures and sending out letters letting the community know we were opening up a dispensary, we opened up a dispensary. We operated for about three months until competitors started (opening up). They were very vocal about their presence in town by posting fliers everywhere."

On Aug. 24, 2011 Michigan State Appeals Court ruled against dispensaries. Judges in the case found that a Mount Pleasant dispensary, Compassionate Apothecary, was a public nuisance and in violation of the Public Health Code. 

The court also ruled the sale of medical marijuana is not protected by law. Traverse City senior Andy Clark is medical marijuana patient and said because dispensaries are not legal, the process of purchasing medication can be dangerous. 

"Right now it is cashed-based transactions, which (are) risky," Clark said. "If the state would clear up the legality of dispensaries, grow operations could regulate transactions and get insured."

On Feb. 8, 2013 the State Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana dispensaries can be shut down as a public nuisance. Proponents of dispensaries say it's up to local authorities to decide how to interpret the ruling. 

Advocating for change

During a panel discussion hosted by Student Advocates for the Medical and Responsible use of Cannabis, panelists explained the medical marijuana industry's growth and legality of the business. 

Kevin Pybus, a former Colorado grower and panelist, said large grow operations are not fueling the medical marijuana movement for the right reasons. 

"Small grow operations and greenhouses produce the best product for patients," Pybus said. "Some of the largest grow operations in Colorado are disgusting and insane. The patient's need isn't thought of; it's just the business aspect that's taken into consideration."

Pybus grew up in Howell and moved to Colorado when his job at Ford Motor Company transferred him there. Once in Colorado, Pybus grew interested in the marijuana industry. He took part in helping out at the state's first comfort club, an area designated for patients to smoke, and became involved in grow operations.

He recently moved back to Howell after his father fell ill with kidney failure related to the long-term effects of prescribed medicine. Pybus said his father was in pain from kidney operations and he didn't speak or get out of his hospital bed much because his pain medication wasn't helping. 

After seeing his dad in pain for nine months, Pybus decided to give him an edible form of marijuana. His father said it was the best he had felt in a long time. Seeing how much of a difference it made for his father, Pybus wanted to join the medical marijuana movement in Michigan. 

"For the last eight years I've been working with medical marijuana. I got invited to a city council meeting (in Howell) and was able to speak about medical marijuana openly for the first time," Pybus said. "It went really well. There were a lot of people that nodded their heads at me in agreement while I was speaking. I've spoken 25 times to city council since then. We're making progress. It's slow, but we are making progress."

Ian Elliott, president of SAMRC, said the student organization will attempt to gather 50,000 of the required 300,000 signatures necessary to get a new marijuana legalization initiative placed on Michigan's 2016 election ballot. 

The initiative proposes to clear up the laws regarding concentrates and promises to make legal the presence of dispensaries in the state.