Activists vs. bureaucrats
Lawsuits part of effort to get state officials to comply with medical marijuana law
Published: October 3, 2012
Medical marijuana laws generally get bureaucratic pushback from administrators, politicians and law enforcement unhappy with the changes made by citizens' initiatives. Michigan medical marijuana activists claim that is the case with the Michigan Bureau of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), which oversees the Michigan Medical Marihuana program (MMMP).
LARA has definitely been remiss in processing applications and issuing registration cards to patients and caregivers in the past. Although Rae Ramsdell, director of LARA's Bureau of Health Professions, claims to have caught up on a backlog of applications since buying new card-printing machines, complaints about receiving cards late still circulate among activists.
In addition, LARA has not convened a review panel to consider adding qualifying conditions to the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program registry as required by the law passed in November 2008. After nearly four years, that still hasn't happened.
On Sept. 19, the Detroit-based law office, Cannabis Counsel PLC, filed a lawsuit in Ingham County against LARA Director Steven H. Hilfinger and Ramsdell on the behalf of plaintiff Martin Chilcutt, a nearly 80-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who founded the group Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access. The suit requests a court order that would force the officials to follow the law.
"There have been hundreds of petitions filed and they still haven't convened a panel to add qualifying conditions to the registry," says attorney Thomas Lavigne of Cannabis Counsel. "Our guy filed years ago. They're supposed to make a decision within 180 days of the petition. They haven't carried out their obligation under this act in any regard."
There are about a dozen conditions that qualify patients to have medical marijuana in Michigan. These include cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, ALC, Crohn's disease, Alzheimer's disease, chronic pain, nausea, seizures, wasting syndrome and a few other conditions. Although they don't qualify in Michigan, Parkinson's disease, anorexia and post-traumatic stress disorder are qualifying conditions in some other states. A bill pending in the Michigan Legislature would remove glaucoma as a qualifying condition.
Registration cards are another issue. According to law, the MMMP has to approve or deny an application within 15 days of receiving the application and fee. If the application is approved LARA is supposed to issue a registry card within five days. If the application is denied, the department has to notify the applicant within 15 days of receipt. After 30 days, if an application has not been denied but the applicant has not received a card, a doctor's recommendation and the patient's application can serve as verification of his or her status for legal purposes. Lavigne says that's not working.
"In the meantime, law enforcement officers are taking the attitude that if you don't have the plastic card from the state you're not legal," he says. "We've got hundreds of cases where people have not gotten their card ever."
Lavigne says that, several months ago, LARA had a notice on its website telling applicants that if they had applied 11 months earlier the agency wasn't going to send a card because it would be expired in a month.
Lori Donlan, from LARA's office of communications, sent an e-mail to me saying that LARA was in "100 percent compliance of the Act" and that the panel, which still lacks two members, will meet by the end of the year. Regarding the lawsuit, she wrote, "No comments are available at this time since the document is being reviewed by our legal counsel, the Attorney General's Office."
There are about 131,000 registered medical marijuana patients in Michigan and about 27,000 caregivers. Early on, LARA representatives claimed that they were overwhelmed by applications for the program. However, it's been nearly four years since the program was implemented. That seems enough time to ramp things up. State registration cards for patients on Social Security, Social Security Disability or certain categories of Medicaid cost $25. The charge for all others is $100. Information on the LARA website says that there have been 222,413 MMMP applications and renewals. It would seem that there is enough money in the system to hire staff and buy equipment to expedite things.
Lawsuits seem to be the way to get things done in general when it comes to getting government to change marijuana policies. On Oct. 16, oral arguments will begin in Americans for Safer Access vs. Drug Enforcement Agency in the ASA's effort to get the DEA to remove marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule 1 drugs are those deemed to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. The ASA was one of a coalition of organizations that petitioned the DEA in 2002 to reschedule marijuana. The DEA denied that petition last year after ASA sued to compel the government to act on it.
That denial opened the door for ASA to sue the DEA to defend its position in court. There is plenty of evidence that marijuana does have medical uses available now — thousands of studies are now on record. That doesn't mean the DEA will reschedule marijuana, but it will be very interesting to see how its lawyers will argue against seemingly overwhelming evidence.
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