Medical marijuana law is set

February 25, 2009
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LANSING — Your arm hurts pretty bad. And since the Proposal 1 ballot initiative passed in the November elections, you’re thinking this might be the chance to get legally prescribed marijuana to ease your pain.

Think again.

Marijuana remains far from legal, and loopholes in the new law may create problems down the road, law enforcement and health officials said.

The initiative, which allows physicians to recommend marijuana permits for patients with specific diseases, takes effect April 4, said Department of Community Health Director Janet Olszewski.

“The law called for us to draft administrative rules that would give clear guidance for how we were implementing the program,” she said. “We have revised the rules and we are moving them through the final implementation process.”

She said the department will issue registration cards to eligible patients or their caregivers to grow or possess marijuana. It will also provide guidance to physicians about their role.

“They will not be prescribing medical marijuana. They will be certifying an individual as having a condition for using it,” she said.

Melanie Brim, director of the department’s Bureau of Health Professions, emphasized the initiative does not make marijuana legal.

“What the bill does is give patients with specific debilitating medical conditions the ability to apply for a registration card, which allows them to possess a certain number of ounces or plants,” Brim said. “It is not a prescription. It is still illegal in Michigan to sell it. It is still a federal crime to distribute marijuana.

“What the ballot initiative does not do is provide an avenue by which you acquire marijuana. For consumers, that is still a major issue.”

The DCH lists eligible debilitating conditions such as cancer, HIV, AIDS, glaucoma, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease and chronic or severe pain.

The initiative does not say where an eligible patient could obtain marijuana.

“The problem is that the ballot initiative had a gap in it,” said Michigan State Medical Society public relations director Dave Fox. “It doesn’t say how to get seeds or ready-to-use marijuana.”

Fox also said a patient in severe pain will not want to obtain seeds and wait for them to grow.

Because marijuana is recommended by physicians but still illegal, law enforcement officers are in a bind over penalties for users who are arrested.

Crawford County Sheriff Kirk Wakefield said he expects problems to arise.

“What the legislation thought was necessary is now creating a lot of problems. It is not user-friendly for law enforcement,” Wakefield said. “If they’re driving and under the influence of marijuana, they’re going to jail.”

Unlike with alcohol, there is no way to instantly tell how much or how potent marijuana someone has smoked, he said.

Wakefield said urine or blood tests may show positive tetrahydrocannabinol results from previous use — yet another loophole. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana that gives one the feeling of being “high.” Steven Thompson, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Michigan chapter in Eastpointe, said urine and blood testing are not accurate procedures for determining impaired driving.

“It should be based on a person’s driving performance, not if they have THC in their system,” he said. “If someone fails to pass a field sobriety test, then yes, arrest them.”

Although marijuana laws have loosened around the country, it is still classified by the federal government as a Schedule I controlled substance along with heroin and ecstasy.

Under federal law, Schedule I substances are deemed to have a high potential for abuse, are not accepted for medical use in the United States and have a general lack of accepted safety by medical institutions.

“Because cannabis was put under Schedule I, people think it’s a drug. It’s not,” said Thompson. “Cannabis is a seed-bearing herb. Drugs are handmade for the purpose of being drugs.”

Mark Steinberg, manager of the DCH’s Substance Abuse Contract Management Section, said, “One of the concerns we have with the medical marijuana law upon us is the general public, particularly young people, not taking marijuana seriously as a drug of abuse.

“It is not a recreational plaything. It can really bite you financially and legally.”

With the ballot initiative near finalization, Fox said physicians may be reluctant to issue a registration card to eligible patients.

“Physicians are not necessarily protected if a lawsuit arises,” he said. “Also, physicians are scientists and like things to be proven effective. They like dosing and quality control. It puts a doctor in an awkward spot when someone requests medicinal marijuana.”

Thompson said he doesn’t expect any legal problems to arise with the federal government.

“Under our present administration, I don’t see any legal problems happening,” he said. “Obama said he will not use federal money in lawsuits in states that have allowed medicinal marijuana.”

While strongly opposed to smoking, the medical society’s Fox said his organization supports more scientific research into the effectiveness of THC.

So before you ask your physician to recommend marijuana to ease the pain of that sore arm, you might want to ask yourself if it’s worth the risks that come with it.

“It’s unknown at this point how many doctors will recommend marijuana to patients,” Fox said. “It could cause some issues. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”

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