Michigan’s medical marijuana program has recorded some interesting ups and downs, according to state statistics analyzed by The Detroit News.
The number of qualified patients and licensed primary caregivers declined between 2011 and 2013, while the number of physicians and the revenues generated from the program’s license fees rose during that same period, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
The number of patients dipped to 118,368 in 2013 from 119,470 in 2011. The number of caregivers, meanwhile, dropped 40 percent to 27,046 in 2013 from 45,289 in 2011, according to the agency figures.
In Metro Detroit’s tri-county area, Oakland County saw the biggest drop in licensed medical marijuana patients in those two years, falling 11 percent from 12,083 in 2011 to 10,741 in 2013.
Meanwhile, the number of caregivers statewide dropped 40 percent to 27,046 in 2013 from 45,289 in 2011, according to LARA figures.
Oakland County again saw the largest decline in the tri-county area, as the number of caregivers fell by more than half from 2011 to 2013.
Jeannie Vogel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said the agency does not speculate on why the numbers of patients and caregivers are down or why the number of physicians is up.
But some experts blame the decreases on the conflicts between federal and state laws, and between the law and law enforcement agencies.
Michael Komorn, president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, said he thinks there are several reasons the number of patients and caregivers has fallen. The association is an advocacy group for patients and caregivers and educates government officials and the public about medical marijuana.
Komorn cited the inconsistency in how law enforcement agencies handle marijuana cases as one reason for the declines.
Michigan allows registered people to use, grow and sell marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the drug is still illegal under federal law.
In one instance, an Okemos businessman who followed state law when leasing warehouse space to licensed medical marijuana growers was arrested by federal authorities, tried and convicted for his role in the operation. He’s serving a three-year federal prison sentence.
And in Lansing last year, police and Children’s Protective Services removed a couple’s 6-month-old daughter from their home for six weeks because the parents used marijuana to treat medical conditions. Both had state-issued medical marijuana patient cards.
“Initially there was a lot of excitement and people thought the law was going to protect individuals from being prosecuted,” said Komorn, a Southfield-based criminal defense attorney. “But it hasn’t worked that way. There are a lot of horror stories.”
Amish Parikh, vice president and director of development for My Compassion, a Taylor-based nonprofit that works to educate medical professionals and the public about medical marijuana, said he thinks federal gun laws also have contributed to the decline.
“Since federal law makes it illegal for anyone who uses marijuana to own a gun, many people have decided to give up their medical marijuana licenses,” he said.
Another reason the number of caregivers has fallen, he said: “Patients are beginning to learn to grow (marijuana for themselves).”
While the number of patients and caregivers is down, the number of doctors registered in the state’s program is up.
Michigan had 249 physicians in the program in 2009 and 2010, according to LARA. The number rose to 1,457 last year from 1,410 in 2011.
David Winowiecki, executive director of the Fraser-based nonprofit Families Against Narcotics, said he thinks the number is up because doctors can collect a fee for certifying medical marijuana patients. “It’s an additional revenue stream for doctors,” he said.
That could help explain the jump in revenues generated by the program, which skyrocketed to $4.4 million in 2010, the second year after the state first began collecting $100 for medical marijuana licenses and renewals. That growth has continued with the state reporting revenues of $10.9 million in 2013 from $10.4 million in 2011.
The costs associated with the program also have increased over time, jumping to $4 million in 2013 from $1.8 million in 2011.
Vogel said the increase in expenditures was “due to the development of a new database and increased staff to eliminate past backlogs.”
The Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, allowing residents with debilitating medical conditions to legally use the drug, was approved Nov. 4, 2008, with 63 percent of the vote.
Since then, some cities in the state also have passed laws decriminalizing possession of the drug or its use, passing ordinances that treat violations involving an ounce or less like a parking ticket. Ferndale, Jackson and Lansing went a step further and made it legal to possess, use or transfer up to an ounce of marijuana on private property.
However, there’s currently no effort that would enable Michigan to follow Colorado and Washington state in legalizing marijuana possession or use for adults 21 and older, said Tim Beck, co-founder of the Safer Michigan Coalition. The group of marijuana law reform advocates lead the drive to decriminalize marijuana possession and use in several Michigan communities and is working to put 17 more on ballots for voter consideration this year. Its ultimate goal, Beck said, is to legalize marijuana in the state.
To be sure, looser marijuana laws have not been without detractors. One of the most visible and vocal has been Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who was elected in 2010.
Schuette filed lawsuits to have medical marijuana dispensaries shut down across the state, arguing they violated state law. The state court of appeals agreed with Schuette in a 2011 ruling.
Joy Yearout, a Schuette spokeswoman, said the attorney general continues to oppose “laws that make it easier to put drugs in the hands of kids.”
Winowiecki said the state’s medical marijuana law legitimizes the use of an illegal — and harmful — drug.
“The only thing marijuana does is block pain receptors,” he said. “All users of the drug are doing is choosing one chemical over another. There’s nothing in it that treats any disease.”
He said the law sends a mixed message to adults and young people. “People think because it’s medical marijuana, it’s OK to use it.”
“It’s laughable there’s so much opposition to medical marijuana when it was approved overwhelmingly by Michigan’s voters,” he said.
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