As of last Saturday, legal medical marijuana has arrived in the Midwest. On that day, Michigan's medical marijuana went into effect as the state Department of Community Health began accepting applications from patients to register for the program. By day's end Saturday, the department had received 85 applications, 16 more arrived in the mail Monday, and more have been dribbling in since then.
"We should be issuing the cards probably by the end of April," said James McCurtis, a spokesman for the department, which will oversee the program.
Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved a medical marijuana initiative last fall, but it did not go into effect until last Saturday to allow the department time to craft its rules and regulations. Under the law, patients can grow up to a dozen plants. Caregivers can grow for up to five patients, as well as themselves. Patients must have a doctor's recommendation and suffer from a specified list of diseases, symptoms, or conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis.
As last weekend's opening day rush of applications suggests, there is pent up demand for medical marijuana in Michigan. Advocates estimate that 50,000 people may qualify under the state law. The Chronicle spoke with two of them this week.
Lynn Allen of Williamston suffers from AIDS and hepatitis C, contracted from a blood transfusion. He has been on disability since 1996, the last time he was able to work. Marijuana works for him, he said.
"I've been through periods where I lost a lot of weight, and I need medical marijuana primarily to develop my appetite," he said. "It causes the munchies."
Allen had experimented with weed back in his college days in the 1970s, but had left it behind long ago. "It's been 30 years since I tried it in college, but I decided to try it again, and it seems to work reasonably well, so I was quite happy when the vote passed. I plan to grow my own. I don't have a real good history with growing things, but this will be a fun project."
Allen hasn't sent in his application yet, but will soon, he said. "I have an appointment with my doctor to get the documentation signed, then I will submit it."
Another Michigander preparing to take advantage of the new law is 19-year-old Jon Dunbar of Kalamazoo. Dunbar suffers chronic pain from degenerative spinal problems and neuropathy and walks with the assistance of a cane.
"It started with a little bit of back pain and has gotten progressively worse for the past two years," Dunbar explained. "I am now disabled. This has taken my life from me. About a year ago, I started getting symptoms in my leg. When the nerves die, you lose function and feeling. I can't drive, I can't walk normally, I will never be able to play sports again. I have to do physical therapy because the nerves are constantly dying and I have to learn to adjust to that," he explained.
"My doctor says there is no cure and I will be on some form of pain management for the rest of my life. I've been on almost every opiate you can think of -- fentanyl, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone -- but that stuff is horribly addictive. It's bad enough having to watch my nerves die; I don't want to be some kind of addict, too."
[Ed: The likelihood of a pain patient getting addicted to opiates is actually low if the prescribing is handled properly, research has found, but that's another issue. Clearly patients who prefer not to use powerful opiates have legitimate reasons and should not be forced to do so (just as patients who need or prefer opiates for pain control should not be prevented from obtaining them).]
Medical marijuana helps him lay off the heavy meds, he said. "It helps me cut back on my need for opiates for relief, and being able to cut back even a little is beneficial for me."
Dunbar tried marijuana for pain relief several months ago, but is waiting to get legal medicine. "After I tried it, I would have switched right away if it were legal. Maybe I could cut down on the 10 10-milligram Percocets I'm taking every day right now."
The former athlete and musician is preparing his application this week. "Since I can't drive, I have to catch rides to go to the doctor and take in my application, but I'm working on that right now. I should be an officially registered patient within three weeks," Dunbar said.
Patient advocates are keeping a watchful eye on the state and law enforcement, but so far, so good, said Greg Francisco, head of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA), the leading patient group in the state, which took a busload of patients and supporters to Lansing Saturday and signed up 50 people. "We're relatively happy with the way the state has responded," he said. "It would have been nice if they had been more collaborative with us, but they didn't really collaborate with any of the stakeholders, not patients, not law enforcement, not pharmacies, not doctors. Still, I think we have a workable program here."
A handful of patients have run into problems with police since the law passed in November, but the courts have been inclined to throw out those cases, Francisco said. In one case in the Detroit suburb of Madison Heights, police raided a couple growing 21 plants, but now the city finds itself in the odd position of ensuring that the plants stay alive. While there are some grey areas in the law, things will sort themselves out, he predicted.
"Most departments are saying they will follow the law, but the state has not been good at communicating just how the program works or what are the limits and liberties," said Francisco. "We're dedicated to protecting the liberties of patients and encouraging people to stay within the limits. We're trying to create an ethic of respect for the law on all sides."
MMMA has been busy traversing the state and working with patients, said Francisco. "We've been starting compassion clubs. These are not marijuana hook-ups, these are patient support groups. They help hook patients up with doctors and things like that. Now, people may make relationships at the compassion clubs, but if they want to talk about obtaining clones and medicine, that's going to happen outside the club. That's a secondary function for these clubs; they're not dispensaries, but pure patient support groups."
While the law allows patients to grow up to 12 plants and provides for caregivers who can grow the allotted maximum for up to five patients, plus themselves, it does not mention co-ops or dispensaries. That means there is going to be some pushing of boundaries, said Francisco.
"There are lots and lots of different models being talked about," he said. "There are entrepreneurs pushing the envelope, and we encourage that. We encourage people to make good choices and go for it. We would hope that we would end up with not for profit, community-based operations, but we're really about options and pushing the envelope."
And so the tendrils of the medical marijuana movement burrow into the fertile soil of Michigan. Soon, it may not be the only Midwest medical marijuana state. Legislative efforts are well under way in Minnesota and Illinois. Perhaps by the time the lawmakers go home in those two states, they will be ready to join Michigan as part of the third front (after the West Coast and the Northeast) in the expansion of therapeutic cannabis.