Feb 25, 2008

Medical mariujana clears Michigan ballot hurdle

A citizen initiative that will allow people with serious illnesses to legally use marijuana for medicinal purposes appears to the first of many possible initiatives to make it on the November ballot.

The Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care (MCCC) turned in 474,752 signatures -- 304,101 were required -- for the measure to go on the ballot, and the deadline for any group or citizen to challenge the validity of signatures has passed. All that is left is for the secretary of state's office to do a statistical study of a sample of the signatures before it's sent to the Michigan Legislature.

“They are in the process of verifying the signatures, but they are not under any hard deadline to complete it,” said Dianne Byrum, the spokesperson for the MCCC. “We have a very high degree of certainty that they will be verified.”

Under Michigan election law, once the signatures are verified the initiative will be sent to the Legislature, where lawmaker will have three options. Within 45 days they must enact it, reject it, or do nothing and it will be on the ballot. If they reject it, it will also go on the ballot. If approved by voters it will become law.

According to the MCCC, the initiative is passed it will allow terminally and seriously ill patients who find relief from marijuana to use it with their doctors' approval by protecting them from arrest and prosecution. It will permit qualifying patients or their caregivers to cultivate limited amounts of their own marijuana for their medical use. The law will create registry identification cards, so that law enforcement officials could easily tell who was a registered patient, and it will establish penalties for false statements and fraudulent ID cards. The initiative also will allow patients and their caregivers who are arrested to discuss their medical use in court.

There does not appear to be any organized opposition to the initiative, but there seems to be plenty of support. Just this month the American College of Physicians, the nation's largest medical specialty organization and the second largest physician group in the United States, released a report supporting the use of medical marijuana for seriously ill people.

The Michigan measure is part of a nationwide effort by the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which has been successful in passing medical marijuana initiatives in 12 states. The MCCC raised $1.074 million, and the nonprofit MPP donated more than $1 million of that.

Bills advocating medical marijuana have been introduced in almost every legislative session since 2002, but they have gone nowhere. The latest attempt is House Bill 4038,introduced on Jan. 22, 2007, by Rep. LaMar Lemmons Jr., D-Detroit.

“It has reached a point where it is not a question of health or research, it’s a political question,” Byrum said.

Opponents have argued that state medical marijuana laws put the states in violation of federal law, but Byrum said states are free to determine how they penalize drug offenses. State governments cannot directly violate federal law by giving marijuana to patients, but states can refuse to arrest patients who grow their own. She also said the other states that have enacted medical marijuana laws have been left alone, and 99 percent of drug enforcement is by local law enforcement agencies.

“The feds could come in for enforcement, but it is highly unlikely that the feds would come in and arrest a person for using medical marijuana,” she said.

Some critics have charged that this and other marijuana initiatives bypass the strict federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) drug approval process. Byrum said there is already enough scientific evidence to establish that marijuana is a safe and effective medicine for some people, and it has been used in the past for medicinal purposes. It was legal for medical purposes until 1942, when it was removed because federal legislation made the drug illegal.

“The federal government has put up a wall to further research, and you can’t even get past the federal government to do any more research on medical marijuana,” Byrum said.

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