Jan 20, 2010

Senate committee attempts to circumvent the will of the voters with medical marijuana

Supporters of the popular medical marijuana law that won overwhelming voter support in November of 2008 are concerned that the Legislature is trying to regulate and effectively kill the program.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Senate Bills 616-618 before a committee room packed with supporters of medical marijuana on Tuesday. The bills would treat medical marijuana as a schedule 2 narcotic, limit a patient's ability to get the drug and require that it be purchased from a pharmacist with a physician's prescription. Supports say the bills could end the program and circumvent the will of the voters, and that may appear to be the case.

“The voters have been very specific on this,” said Sen. Hansen Clarke, D-Detroit. “I’m asking that we don’t rehash the issue.”

That appeared to be the case with some conservative members of the committee. It led to some heated testimony that may have been better aired before the election. Many of the issues brought up were clearly settled in the election.

“So this initiative was really about liberalization of marijuana use,” said Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, the chair of the committee.

Greg Francisco, the director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, denied that charge, and he said it has helped thousands of terminally ill patients, disabled patients and patients with chronic pain.

“This is a plant and a medicine,” he said. “I think that we should take it off all schedules and treat it like any other herb.”

The Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care (MCCC) turned in 474,752 signatures -- 304,101 were required -- for the measure to go on the ballot in February of 2008. Under Michigan election law, once the signatures were verified the initiative was sent to the Legislature, where lawmaker had three options. Within 45 days they could have enacted it with the restrictions they want now, rejected it, or done nothing, which they did, and it went on the ballot.

After the law was passed, the Department of Community Health (DCH) had 120 days to come up with rules. Since April, the DCH has issued registration cards to 10,400 users and growers after getting approval from a doctor. The cards protect people from arrest and prosecution, and caregivers with a card are able to supply up to five patients with medical marijuana. The DCH opposes the bills as written, but they did say there needs to be more clarification.

If the bills pass, it will basically put doctors and pharmacists in violation of federal law, which could kill the program. What doctor or pharmacist would put their license at risk by illegally writing a prescription and filling it. Marijuana possession is still against federal law. State governments cannot directly violate federal law by giving marijuana to patients, but states can and do refuse to arrest patients who grow their own. The Obama administration has said it will not go after states with medical marijuana laws.

Supporters were also concerned about the penalties the bills enact, making it a felony for a card holder to sell marijuana to a non-card holder. The problem is the penalty is stiffer than for someone off the street who sells it.

“It strikes me as legally unnecessary,” said Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing.

The committee did not vote on the bills.

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