Questions still swirl around medical marijuana

January 12, 2009
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A public hearing to gather information for implementing Michigan’s new medical marijuana law is set for 9 a.m. Jan. 5 in Lansing, at the state Secondary Complex, General Office Building, 7150 Harris Drive.

In the meantime, the Michigan Department of Community Health has set up a Web site for basic information on the new law at www.michigan.gov/mdch. But until the department comes up with the rules and has them vetted at the public hearing and by two state agencies, there still seem to be more questions than answers about the state’s move to partially decriminalize marijuana.

The law, passed by voters in November, gives the Michigan Department of Community Health until April 4 to come up with rules for issuing permission to those who have physician approval to use marijuana to relieve symptoms of certain medical conditions, MDCH spokesman James McCurtis Jr. said.

Michigan voters approved the measure, 63 percent to 37 percent. But a lack of details means the law is likely to generate court cases to fill in the blanks in the future, said Calhoun County Prosecutor John Hallacy, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

“Sorting all that out and training the officers on the street and prosecutors in the courtroom is going to be very important,” Hallacy said. “And also, as the courts rule on different aspects of it, what will court interpretations be, because clearly there will be the factual scenarios that will occur in the future that maybe weren’t anticipated, or the language is not quite as concise or didn’t fit the particular factual circumstances. All those will have to unfold, and what happens is, it takes a period of time for those things to happen.”

The Michigan State Medical Society is keeping an eye on development related to the new law in order to advise doctors, who will be asked to verify that a patient has a condition that permits the use of marijuana for medical purposes.

Conditions with symptoms, such as pain and nausea, that are reportedly alleviated by the drug include cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and HIV/AIDS, but it’s been touted for everything from chronic pain to menstrual cramps.

MSMS spokesman David Fox said liability concerns and medical benefits top the list of doctors’ concerns.

“Even after the rules are promulgated, there will probably be a number of things that remain unclear,” Fox said. “One of them is the fact that possession of marijuana will remain a federal offense.

“Physicians will have always in the back of their mind that there is a federal law against it. Physicians have always felt that they may become involved in some sort of lawsuit. There’s always been a concern in the area of liability for physicians,” Fox said.

He said doctors also are worried that patients determined to get access to marijuana could strain the patient-doctor relationship. Some are worried about providing medicinal access to a drug that is smoked, which can compromise health. The inability to control dosing of marijuana’s main ingredient, THC, is another worry.

The state law allows a patient or caregiver to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana and to grow up to 12 plants. Caregivers are limited to handling marijuana for no more than five patients. The MDCH will issue cards to patients, based on doctors’ recommendations. The department will charge a fee for the card, but the amount has not yet been determined, McCurtis said.

“This will not be a state-funded program,” he said. “It will be funded by application fees. People who apply for an ID card will have to pay a fee. Other things, such as criteria, will be established in the rules.”

Among potential pitfalls, according to Hallacy: Acquiring marijuana is still illegal under state law; possessing any amount is still illegal under federal law; and the law prohibits use in a public place, but does not define what that is.  

“One of the key ones … is the drunk or drugged driving,” he added. “While the act does prohibit the operation of a motor vehicle under the influence of marijuana, it doesn’t reference the current Michigan law regarding being under the influence of a controlled substance.

“What happens when an officer stops somebody who is lawfully possessing pursuant to this law, and yet they’re driving a motor vehicle? Does the Michigan law, as it has been in place, apply to them? That’s a legal question that will probably have to be hammered out in the court system.”

Michigan is the 13th state to allow medical marijuana. Others are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Hallacy said he’s turned for advice to colleagues from those areas, but because state laws differ, their procedures don’t necessarily translate to Michigan.

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