Lawmakers blast ‘wild west’ of cannabis market, while caregivers decry proposed regulations ⋆ Michigan Advance

When Tanya Kaye’s granddaughter, Anastasia, began having seizures shortly after birth, doctors recommended controlling them with phenobarbital, a barbiturate that slows the activity of the brain and nervous system.

Kaye, 40, a medical marijuana caregiver and certified cannabis consultant from Clio, was worried about side effects and developmental delays from the medication. She suggested trying a full-spectrum CBD oil with low THC concentrates, specially formulated by a hemp farmer and properly tested. They started Anastasia on the oil at 3 months old, and her seizures are under control.

“Our experience from that has been absolutely wonderful,” Kaye said. “Within a week, she was starting to smile, babble, trying to laugh and coo, just being a normal 3-month-old baby.”

Tanya Kaye and her granddaughter, Anastasia | Tanya Kaye photo

Kaye attended the Sept. 15 Caregiver Rights Rally in Lansing to speak about the benefits of medical marijuana. A day before the already-planned caregiver rally, bipartisan lawmakers announced proposed legislation that would restrict caregivers’ cultivation rights unless they apply for a new license. The laws include rules for testing, transporting and growing medical marijuana.

Kaye also showed up at Tuesday’s heavily attended Michigan House Regulatory Reform Committee hearing, but it ended before many caregivers could speak. Lawmakers and others addressed the committee in support of proposed changes to Michigan’s Medical Marijuana and Michigan Medical Marijuana Facility Licensing acts.

Bills include new license, testing for caregivers

Medical marijuana was legalized in Michigan with a 2008 ballot initiative. Ten years later, voters approved a proposal that makes it legal for adults over age 21 to grow, possess and use cannabis for recreational purposes.

As of Oct. 1, there were 247,616 active patients (289 are minors) and 29,827 active caregivers, according to the state Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA).

House Bills 53005302, known as the Michigan Cannabis Safety Act, would tighten rules for unlicensed caregivers related to patient and plant allowances. The bills propose a new specialty medical grower (SMG) license for caregivers that includes a variety of regulations and testing of products. 

Caregivers who want to keep their current five patients and 12 plants per patient count would have to apply for the specialty medical grower license. Unlicensed caregivers would be reduced to one patient and could still grow in their home. 

State Reps. Jim Lilly (R-Park Twp.) and Richard Steenland (D-Roseville) introduced the bills, now before the Regulatory Reform Committee. A second hearing could happen this month.

“This bipartisan legislation provides a fair and balanced approach to cannabis reform in our state,” Lilly said when introducing the bills. “It also helps ensure that all cannabis providers follow the same rules and standards, like testing, tracking and licensing.”  

Kaye is a registered patient and caregiver for her daughter and two other patients. Under the new rules, she would have to apply for a specialty medical grower license. Many medical marijuana patients have chronic illnesses like cancer, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, chronic pain and HIV.

“The caregivers take care of the truly sick people and the people who can’t afford it,” Kaye said. “I’m very upset about all of this. It’s out of greed because somebody can’t make a profit on a patient.”

Steenland briefly spoke at the hearing on HB 5302, saying it establishes a tracking system to help ensure all patients and consumers have access to safe and tested cannabis products and know where the product comes from.

“Unfortunately, our current system does not require tracking of cannabis grown by medical providers,” Steenland said. “This bill helps encourage accountability for all cannabis providers, updating these outdated rules, and above all, is central to ensuring cannabis in Michigan is tested, labeled, tracked and licensed.”

Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) introduced HB 5320 and brought up public safety concerns in rural counties, including Lapeer County which he represents. He said the regulations will support local communities that need to be protected from “the wild west that we’re dealing with now.”

Howell said multiple caregivers are buying homes, gutting them for marijuana grows and bringing vicious dogs along with other problems. Representatives from Michigan Townships Association, Michigan Chamber and Michigan Municipal League also testified, expressing similar concerns about caregivers coordinating larger-scale grow operations in neighborhoods. 

“They are being overwhelmed by these so-called caregiver operations,” Howell said of rural communities. “… I am sure many [caregivers] are not criminals. But I can tell you there’s a ton of them that are criminals, and they are all over my county. I’m not talking a few. I am talking a hundred in a small rural county.”

Howell also brought up concerns over safety and testing. “If I needed it medically, I would want to know what is in this stuff, is it safe, should my grandfather be taking it. … Actually, I’m the grandfather, should my grandson be taking it.” 

Several committee members, including Reps. Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes), Joseph Bellino (R-Monroe) and Tenisha Yancey (D-Harper Woods), expressed issues with the proposed laws. Lilly maintains the safety act has good intentions, focusing on consumer and patient safety, protecting neighborhoods and trying to get a handle on the illicit cannabis market. 

“From our perspective, what’s clearly important and most important about this is that cannabis being provided is being tested and tracked,” Lilly said. “We want to create a level playing field for any of this product that is making it into the traditional medical market.”

Cannabis trade association speaks, studies presented 

The hearing opened with over an hour of testimony from those in favor of the bills, including representatives from Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association (MCMA) and groups it commissioned to study Michigan’s cannabis industry. 

The East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group presented various data on the state’s cannabis market. An AEG study estimates roughly two-thirds of Michigan’s $3.2 billion in annual cannabis sales in 2020 came from home cultivation, medical caregivers and illicit adult-use sales.    

Steve Linder, Oct. 5, 2021 | Screenshot

The MCMA, a trade group that represents “nearly half of all multiple Class C cannabis licenses in Michigan,” is reportedly behind the effort to tighten regulations for medical marijuana caregivers. Stephen Linder, MCMA’s executive director, is a longtime Republican consultant and lobbyist who wants to rein in the unregulated supply.

“These bills do some very simple common sense reforms,” Linder said. “It makes all those who grow and sell cannabis for medicinal purposes to be licensed, to test their products, and for those who grow for more than one patient and a small number of plants, to move out of neighborhoods.”  

While lawmakers tout safety and accountability, caregivers and cannabis activists say the proposed changes make it virtually impossible for caregivers to become licensed specialty medical growers due to the added regulations and associated costs.

George Brikho, president of Michigan Caregivers Association, also testified along with Scott Hagerstrom, an attorney and GOP political consultant. Brikho said MCA members are against the bills, and there are already laws in place that deal with lawmakers’ concerns. 

“These bills are presented through fear mongering to put control and regulations on the caregivers,” Brikho said. “In the bill, it clearly states at any given time the state can revoke your license.”

The proposed bills create new regulations around where and how specialty medical growers can cultivate or manufacture medical marijuana. SMGs would have to move to areas zoned for agricultural or industrial use while still capping patients to five. 

The law allows only one licensed specialty medical grower to cultivate marijuana at the same location unless local ordinances “explicitly authorize” more than one SMG can grow at the same site. In addition, each SMG must have a separate enclosed, locked facility with a separate entrance and metered utilities.

“There are regulations that are so difficult to understand that an average caregiver would not be able to meet those requirements,” said Rick Thompson, executive director of NORML of Michigan, in an interview before the hearing. “They want them to grow in a commercially zoned area, that’s the big expense, and locate their services away from where they have been successful in the past. That’s big money before they even get a single dollar back.”

Specialty medical growers would have to package, test and label all products and use a secure transporter licensed under the Medical Marijuana Facilities Licensing Act. It also requires the sale or transfer of medical marijuana be entered into the state’s METRC system.

Thompson also testified at Tuesday’s hearing, saying he is a patient who doesn’t grow so the law directly affects him.  

Rep. Roger Hauck, Oct. 5, 2021 | Screenshot

“I’ve been doing this since 2010, coming to testify, and this is a shocking level of lack of knowledge on the part of the lawmakers in regards to caregivers, patients and the medical system itself,” Thompson said. 

At one point, Thompson was reprimanded by Committee Chair Roger Hauck (R-Union Twp.) to focus on the bill. Thompson said the proposed laws are punitive and there are already laws in place to address other issues related to large underground grows and local zoning ordinances. 

“The merits of the bill, there are none,” Thompson said. “The bill is terrible. The bill was not crafted in cooperation with caregivers; it was not crafted in a position of knowledge. It was crafted from a position of defense by the MCMA in order to protect their particular industry.”

Caregivers maintain current system works

Kaye spoke at the rally about the benefits of medical marijuana for her patients and pediatric patients like her granddaughter. Anastasia, now almost 10 months old, doesn’t have a medical marijuana card, but she may need one if she needs higher doses of THC in the future.

Many cancer patients obtain Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) from caregivers at a much lower cost than they could buy it at a provisioning center. For pediatric patients like her granddaughter, it’s not feasible to obtain her medicine from a provisioning center.

“It’s not practical,” Kaye said. “They couldn’t make enough money because there are not enough people who need it for that specific thing.”

Amie Carter of Burton testified about the transformation in her 14-year-old autistic son who was violent and aggressive before medical cannabis. Kaye and Carter serve on the board for More Than Hope, an organization for pediatric cannabis education.

“Medical marijuana has been a lifesaver for my family,” Carter said. “Without the current caregiver system, I cannot afford dispensary prices.”

Another argument to reduce patient counts hinges on what caregivers are doing with plant overages. Under current laws, caregivers can have a maximum 72 plants if the caregiver is also a registered medical marijuana patient. Caregiver Joe Sullivan testified that those plants are in various stages at various times, so all 12 patient plants aren’t flowering at once.

Sullivan said he started in a dispensary in Bay City and became a caregiver because his patients want low-dose medicine in the form of edibles and oils. He also tests his products. 

“For me, it’s tailor-making medicine for my patients and myself,” Sullivan said. “The low-dose which I make for myself and my patients, which baby Anastasia needs, you cannot get it at a dispensary. They are not desirable.”

Medical marijuana caregivers and activists counter that they led the charge to legalize medical and recreational marijuana in the state and are now being pushed out by big cannabis companies. 

Ryan Bringold, a caregiver who organized the Capitol rally, said the 2008 MMA act was written by patients, nurses and lawyers and passed by an overwhelming margin. The act created the caregiver program and has worked fine for the last 12 years.

“It’s a simple bait and switch is what it is,” Bringold said. “It’s another way to try to get rid of the caregiver system with the bait ‘hey you can apply for a license beyond the normal caregiver and then we’ll let you in METRC.’ Nobody is buying into it; it’s garbage.”

Cannabis activists say Linder has a history of supporting anti-marijuana legislation as a Republican consultant and now he is representing big cannabis. MCMA has spent a lot of time and money on studies and billboards promoting its agenda and pitching legislative changes to lawmakers, Thompson said.

Caregivers and patients have never had a seat at the table when designing recent cannabis laws, Bringold said, and the real injustice is that laws are being made by people who don’t understand the caregiver program. 

“We had over 100 people show up [to the rally] that made calls to their local representative and not one representative took a meeting with a constituent,” Bringold said. “That’s a problem.”

Lilly: Act creates pathway to regulated market 

Lilly maintains the issue hinges on safety for consumers and medical patients. The law authorizes the Marijuana Regulatory Agency to process specialty medical grower license applications, which have a $500 fee, and enforce the new rules. 

The proposed legislation allows licensed specialty medical growers to sell overages to licensed medical marijuana growers, but not directly to medical marijuana provisioning centers or dispensaries.

Rep. Jim Lilly, Oct. 5, 2021 | Screenshot

“This legislation creates a path for caregivers selling to more than one patient to join the licensed market,” Lilly said. “It will also allow these growers to sell excess product in the regulated market, and open the door for a new generation of entrepreneurs to enter the market.”   

Bringold said being able to sell to other licensed medical growers doesn’t make sense because most growers are direct competitors. Current law already prohibits caregivers from selling in the retail market.

“They want to shut me out, the people that created the system they are working within,” Bringold said.

Thompson said patients are loyal to caregivers. And caregivers have operated within a law that has worked for more than a decade, so lawmakers should expect resistance.

“The cannabis industry is born of lawlessness,” Thompson said. “We ignore rules that don’t make sense. Tell 30,000 caregivers they have to change and drop 80% of their cultivation, they are not going to do it, and then you turn innocent citizens into accidental criminals.” 

Cancer patient Susan Fischer, a former teacher in Flint, closed out the hearing. She provided testimony about needing medical marijuana and trying to live on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). 

“If it weren’t for medical marijuana, I wouldn’t be able to eat,” Fischer said. “I lost 170 pounds. I can’t sleep at night, and there are people up here talking about entrepreneurs and how their people can get money and I’m just wondering who my caregiver friends should get rid of. … How dare you. I voted in 2008 before I had cancer. I voted yes because I understood that people need this medicine. It’s not about money.”

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