Behind Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Raids: Could More Regulations Prevent Police Intervention?

At a press conference last week, the Michigan State Police explained their rationale behind raids on ten marijuana dispensaries on a single day in March, citing illegal sales to ineligible patrons and other violations of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act. But rather than provide more opportunities for busts, more regulations could actually prevent police intervention, police and activists say.

“Our focus is to stop the drug traffickers who are operating illegally under the guise and umbrella of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act and providing marijuana to those who are not eligible, or not their patients, or in excess of the amounts they are authorized to have,” Michigan State Police Lieutenant Derrick Carroll explained to reporters at a presser. Infractions at the dispensaries in the small Otsego County town reportedly included unauthorized cash transactions, distribution to unregistered patients, and the sale of banned products like oil and wax. Most importantly to activists working in medical marijuana in the state, Lieutenant Carroll said that dispensaries are “not supposed to be charging for marijuana,” and that payments common in medical marijuana dispensaries across the state also motivated the busts.

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that medical marijuana sales are permitted, but only from one a registered caregiver to their five registered patients (as opposed to from patient-to-patient). This is not the kind of profit that could pay the overheard for a shop, which lends some credence to Lieutenant Carrol’s loaded question,“[w]hy do we have all these storefronts?”

While law enforcement appeared to interpret the ruling as a nail in the coffin for the state’s medical marijuana program, dispensaries survived years later. In a press release, the Attorney General of Michigan celebrated the ruling as a victory against medical marijuana. "Today Michigan's highest Court clarified that this law is narrowly focused to help the seriously ill, not an open door to unrestricted retail marijuana sales," Attorney General Bill Schuette said, "Dispensaries will have to close their doors. Sales or transfers between patients or between caregivers and patients other than their own are not permitted under the Medical Marijuana Act."

And yet, many dispensaries in Michigan have continued to operate as businesses without interference from authorities. Part of what keeps these shops in business, activists say, are local ordinances explicitly allowing for and adding some regulations to the industry.

“If you’re not in a city that has an ordinance structure that specifically says you get to exist, I think you have to be extraordinarily cautious, if not simply be prepared for law enforcement activity,” Chris Lindsey, senior legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project told High Times.

Police stressing that rule-breaking was the impetus for the raids, however, agree with marijuana activists that more rules could lead to fewer busts.

In a phone interview with HIGH TIMES, Michigan State Police Sgt. Jeffrey Gorno reiterated the need for additional regulations. While he said that a separate narcotics squad conducted the investigation into the dispensaries and could not speak to the details of the case, he also stressed that more oversight would take responsibility to enforce the law off of state police.

“If they were tightly regulated by the township board or a regulatory agent like they do to liquor, it would take the onus off of us to try to regulate something like that,” Sgt. Gorno said, “The law needs to be rewritten. They need to work on updating and revising some of the laws involving medical marijuana.”

A campaign to legalize marijuana in Michigan in 2016 is in the signature-gathering stages.

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