If this were Star Wars, what has happened with medical marijuana in Michigan recently would be analogous to The Empire Strikes Back — wherein Darth Vader, played by state Attorney General Bill Schuette, with the state Court of Appeals collectively playing the evil emperor in the background, has led his stormtroopers in an offensive that has his opponents on the run.
On Aug. 23, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled against Compassionate Apothecary, LLC, of Mount Pleasant, saying that patient-to-patient sales of medical marijuana were not legal. Judge Joel P. Hoekstra wrote this about the voter-approved Michigan Medical Marihuana Act: "[T]he 'medical use' of marihuana, as defined by the MMMA, does not include patient-to-patient 'sales' of marihuana, and no other provision of the MMMA can be read to permit such sales."
Apparently the only legal way for certified medical marijuana patients to get some medicine is to find some on the porch.
The next day, two dispensaries in Ann Arbor, Med Mar and Liberty Clinic, were raided, while dispensaries across the state — estimates are as many as 500 of them — closed their doors or removed all medication from the premises and only advised clients on what to do.
As prosecutors in county after county, prodded by Schuette, sent cease-and-desist letters to dispensaries operating in their jurisdictions, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton made it known that he was in no hurry to shut down dispensaries in his county, telling the Flint Journal: "I don't have investigators who can go out and inspect what are called the dispensaries and see if they are in violation. The only way I would be able to review any case ... is if any communities investigate it and bring me evidence that a dispensary is in violation."
This is the latest battle in an ongoing war. Oakland County sheriffs notoriously began busting dispensaries last August. In January, police raided the facilities known as Big Daddy's in Oak Park, taking about $2,800 in cash, some marijuana products (it's not clear how much), documents and equipment. Although no charges were filed at the time, last week, in the wake of the court decision, four people associated with Big Daddy's — Rick Ferris, Stefani Ferris, Danny Stafford and Andrey Douthard — were arrested on a total of 24 charges stemming from the January raid.
"All charges have to do with conspiracy to deliver marijuana, delivery of marijuana, and possession with intent to deliver marijuana," says attorney Paul Tylenda, who represents them. "It appears the police used actual patients for controlled buys, rather than use fake IDs for undercover cops," as police did in busting other Oakland County facilities.
"It's an informant problem," Tylenda says. "In my belief it makes it a little more challengeable. It's a snitch situation frankly. The credibility of the snitch is involved."
Tylenda says the complaints were dated before the Court of Appeals decision about Compassionate Apothecary came down, but some medical marijuana activists see it as part of a coordinated effort between the courts, Schuette and county prosecutors to attack medical marijuana activists. Particularly Big Daddy's because the facility serves as the main office of the Michigan Association of Compassion Centers, a group that has organized protests at courthouses where medical marijuana cases were being heard, given legal support to defendants in some cases, and hired lobbyists to support medical marijuana in Lansing.
"There's no question in my mind," says Rich Thompson, a Big Daddy's spokesman who is an organizer of a Sept. 7 rally at the state Capitol. "It's no coincidence that these charges came less than a week after the Court of Appeals ruling. ... If there were any significant health or safety concerns, Oakland County could've closed the facility in January. It seems the two are connected. Big Daddy's is arguably one of the most active organizations in the state supporting medical marijuana and community involvement in the issue. If they take us down, they think they can take the wind out of the sails of the movement. "
Another reason Thompson sees coordination coming from political and law enforcement higher-ups is the demeanor of the police at the raid. "We've never had problems with the city of Oak Park," he says. "During the raid the police were apologetic. They said that the orders came from above. This is the second incidence where Lansing tells Oakland County to jump and [Sheriff Michael] Bouchard and [prosecutor Jessica] Cooper say, 'How high?'"
Tylenda adds, "These officers are mere foot soldiers. They're given orders; they follow orders. It all comes from higher-ups. These charges are more political than practical; more vindictive than something that finds a solution."
It does seem that Schuette has turned the issue into a personal quest. Before the MMMA passed, Schuette, then a judge, was a leader in the fight against the law. An Oct. 7, 2008, article in the Michigan Daily quoted him saying, "There's nothing in this statute that would restrict, nothing that would prohibit and nothing that would prevent these pot shops and pot clubs and smoking co-ops that have erupted in California from coming to Michigan."
Apparently there's nothing in there that allows them either.
As things hit the boiling point elsewhere, there is, curiously, an island of calm in Ypsilanti, where it seems that business as usual is taking place at the Third Coast Compassion Center, the first dispensary to be licensed in Michigan.
"Our city attorney was quoted in some media saying he wanted to see what the Supreme Court does before taking any action," says Jamie Lowell, co-founder of the nonprofit Third Coast. "I don't really think that our model is affected by this ruling. The ruling should be looked at a lot more narrowly than it is. It really doesn't affect all dispensaries. It's great fuel for people who are in opposition. If there is a prosecutor, or someone in opposition to these places, it gives them fuel to hurt those places. We're still really trying to figure out what it means, trying to digest the implications."
So is everybody else in the state. The folks at Michigan Association of Compassion Centers (MACC), and other support organizations, are considering where to go from here. Some suggest an appeal to the state Supreme Court, although a unanimous 3-0 Court of Appeals ruling makes it less likely that the Supreme Court would accept the case. Some call for activists to lobby their state representatives. And some say ballot initiatives to clarify the law or to flat out decriminalize marijuana are in order. Regardless of where things go, the fight is on.
"We're experiencing backlash; this is drug policy reform backlash," says Charmie Gholson, of Mothers Against Prohibition. "I don't think our attorney general and these legislators have public support. The people are far ahead of the politicians on this issue. We passed a law that says you can't arrest us."
But the law, apparently, is up to interpretation. And with the stormtroopers all on Darth Schuette's Death Star, it may take a legal Jedi master to hold off the onslaught.