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Michigan committee hears dramatic testimony on changing cannabis caregiver laws

A Michigan House committee on Tuesday conducted the first of likely many political battles over a proposed legislation package that would sharply reduce the number of patients caregivers can serve while forcing caregivers to follow testing and seed-to-sale tracking rules already followed by commercial cannabis growers in the state.

The hearing, conducted by the House Regulatory Reform Committee in just under two hours and limited to testimony with no votes, attracted a packed room of activists requesting to testify. Committee Chair Rep. Roger Hauck (R-Mt. Pleasant), limited most testimony to five minutes and vowed to cut testifiers off if they strayed from making direct comments about the proposed bills.

Hauck’s promise was tested multiple times by opponents to the bill, leading to one of the most heated moments, when Michigan NORML executive director Rick Thompson repeatedly commented on earlier testimony made by bill supporter and MCMA leader Steve Linder, “You spent an hour and forty-five minutes listening to government employees and public relations people,” Thompson told the committee.

“This testimony is done. Thank you,” said Chair Hauck as he gaveled Thompson from his microphone. “I will let everyone be heard, but I’m not going to be lectured by someone.”

Despite the hearing’s histrionics, most of the testimony barely strayed from points already made in other venues, such as MCMA’s (Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers’ Association) press conference on their polling data and a rally held on the Lansing Capitol Lawn by caregivers last month.

Michigan cannabis laws first enacted through a 2008 referendum allow caregivers registered with the state to grow up to 12 cannabis plants for five registered patients, plus themselves – up to 72 plants – at any one time. Caregiver and patient registration lists are not subject to FOIA or public review, and caregiver grow operations are allowed to be conducted on residential property and can include extraction. The resulting product may only be transferred to that caregiver’s registered patients, according to the referendum law.

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Laws passed through referendum in Michigan require a three-quarters majority in both houses to pass.

Debate over the legislation is quickly devolving into two frames of reference: Legislators and industry leaders attempting to control cannabis production to ensure it does not support criminal enterprises, versus caregivers and patients concerned changes to the law will result in less access to a drug they believe has significantly changed their lives for the better.

One of the bill sponsors, Rep. Gary Howell (R-North Branch) spoke about his concern with how the caregiver title is being co-opted by illicit enterprises.

“I still deal intimately with all 18 townships in my county. They are being overwhelmed by these so-called caregiver operations,” Howell testified. “I’m sure many [caregivers] are not criminals, but I can tell ya, there’s a ton of ‘em that are criminals and they are all over my county. I’m not talking a few, I’m talking a hundred in a small rural county. They are coming in, they are buying houses, they are gutting those houses. They are setting up marijuana operations, putting up fences, vicious dogs around them, they are carrying guns. It’s bringing a criminal element into my community and other rural communities.”

A recent Grown In interview with caregivers backed up some of Howell’s concerns, as a group of caregivers agreed that “about half” of caregiver product ends up in the underground market.

Michigan House Video

Cancer patient and Michigan registered cannabis patient Carol Fisher testified before the House Regulatory Reform Committee on Tuesday, October 5, 2021. Credit: Michigan House Video

Arguing against the proposed legislation, Susan Fisher gave tear-inducing testimony that her access to inexpensive cannabis from a caregiver allows her to comfortably eat and sleep despite her Stage IV neuroendocrine cancer.

“If it weren’t for medical marijuana, I wouldn’t be able to eat. I lost 170 pounds,” Fisher testified. “I can’t sleep at night, and there are people up here talking about entrepreneurs. And how their people can get money, and I just wonder, who should my caregiver get rid of? Should they get rid of Susan? Who should they get rid of?”

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Michigan Works to Limit Amount of Cannabis Caregivers Can Grow

A series of bills currently under consideration in the Michigan legislature would yield enormous changes to medical cannabis caregivers in the state.

The proposals have touched a nerve with advocates and medical cannabis customers in the Wolverine State, some of whom are reportedly “boycotting the major cannabis producers that back the legislation.”

The upshot of all the bills is that they would significantly limit the amount of marijuana a caregiver can grow, reducing the number of cannabis plants from 72 to 24.

The sponsor of the legislation––filed under House Bills 5300, 5301 and 5302––is Republican state House Rep. Jim Lilly, who contends that the proposals are about ensuring the quality of the product for medical cannabis patients in Michigan.

“Two-thirds of the market right now of cannabis in Michigan is unregulated and so what that means is the majority of that product can be untested,” Lilly said, as quoted by local television station WOOD TV. “So for cancer patients, those with immunocompromised situations, getting access to a safe product is really important. Some of this untested product has been found to contain mold, pesticides, E. coli, salmonella.”

“New York just went through some of this work and they’ve done about 12 plants for six patients, compared to what I’ve proposed at 24, but our current law allows for 72, which for anyone who does any growing or cultivating cannabis knows is far more than six patients can possibly consume,” he added.

But Casey Kornoelje, the founder of Michigan cannabis provisioner Farmhouse Wellness, told the station that the legislation could ultimately reduce the amount he could dispense to his wife, who lives with Crohn’s disease. (Kornoelje serves as his wife’s caregiver, per the station.)

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“You’re probably not harvesting 72 plants all in one shot. In order for these caregivers to provide a consistent flow of cannabis for their patients, most likely they’re breaking that down into different segments—some in the early seedling stage, some in the vegetive stage, and then some in the flower stage. And so when you break that down, it’s really not that excessive of a plant count as people are thinking,” Kornoelje said, as quoted by WOOD TV.

Michigan voters legalized medical cannabis treatment in 2008. Ten years later, those voters did the same for recreational pot use.

Patients in Michigan may qualify for a medical marijuana prescription if they have one of the following conditions: Cancer, glaucoma, HIV positive, AIDS, Hepatitis C, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Crohn’s Disease, agitation of Alzheimer’s Disease, nail-patella syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, spinal cord injury, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Parkinson’s disease, Tourette’s disease, autism, chronic pain and cerebral palsy.

Lilly’s legislation was first introduced in September, and drew almost immediate pushback. A day after the bills were proposed, advocates and caregivers held a protest outside the state capitol in Lansing. The group that organized the protest singled out the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturer’s Association (MCMA), which has pushed to limit the amount the caregivers can give to their patients.

“Michigan’s cannabis consumers have lashed out in anger; a boycott of MCMA products and companies affiliated with them has resulted in the resignation of their president, the removal of any reference to individual members on their website, the election of a new board chair to clean up their public relations and the cancellation of orders from MCMA companies by retailers,” read a press release for the demonstration.

The MCMA has countered by arguing that a large majority of cannabis sales in Michigan occur beyond the scope of the state’s regulated market, and that the legislation is designed to mitigate that.