By Felisa Rogers

As we look around the country, we see each state enacting its own laws and waiting with bated breath, hoping that the federal government keeps its promise to let states create their own rules. Let’s take a look at Michigan’s cannabis law, the MMMA. Located in the heart of the nation, Michigan has had cannabis regulation in place for almost a decade.

In 2008, the voters of Michigan showed strong (63%) support for legalizing medical marijuana. Ballot Proposal 1 eventually grew into the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA), which was approved by Michigan lawmakers, allowing a licensed patient to cultivate up to 12 plants for personal use and creating a system of “caregivers” who could grow for multiple patients. This capped a caregiver with a legal maximum of 72 plants. But the most significant aspect of the MMMA was what it did not say.

When it comes to cannabis laws, the MMMA is like the CliffsNotes version. It’s short and leaves a lot to the imagination. In defining “medical use of marijuana” the law references the acquisition of marijuana as part of the lawful process but doesn’t go into further detail. The law is vague on this point. A registered primary caregiver can receive compensation for costs associated with assisting a patient in the medical use of marijuana, but according to the law, “Any compensation does not constitute the sale of controlled substances.” In other words, the law leaves a huge gray area when it comes to the exchange of money for medical marijuana.

While legal experts and law-enforcement professionals decried the bare-bones law as poorly written, many growers, medical patients, and cannabis enthusiasts felt empowered by the law.

“We got lucky with Proposition 1,” says Chris Smith, who has been involved with the Michigan medical industry since its inception. “The person who wrote it was a genius. It was designed to give power to the patients and the growers.”

Michigan grower and cannabis activist Bud Green agrees, saying “While personally I don’t feel there should be any limits, twelve plants per person is manageable. And the caregiver system allows the patient the ability to have firsthand knowledge of how their medicine was produced.”

The gray areas in the MMMA often benefited growers and patients, but the law created uncertainty in the industry by failing to address the sale of medical marijuana. Dispensaries sprang up across the state, but owners feared police raids. “It’s been kind of a free-for-all since 2009,” says Smith, who then mentions three dispensaries in Kalamazoo that were open for a year or two but shut down when the owners heard rumors of a coming police crackdown.

The situation got worse for dispensaries in 2011 when the Michigan State Court of Appeals ruled against Brandon McQueen and Mathew Taylor, the owners of Compassionate Apothecary, a members-only marijuana dispensary in Isabella County. The court held that “Medical use of marijuana does not include the delivery, transfer, or sale of marijuana.” Emboldened by the ruling, law enforcement took the ball and ran with it. Police raids on dispensaries increased, but the level of enforcement varied from region to region, and new dispensaries continued to appear.

Everything remained up in the air until 2016 when the Michigan legislature passed two new acts and amended the MMMA. Most notably, lawmakers settled the dispensary question with the (oddly-spelled) Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act, a lengthy document that establishes about a zillion rules to regulate medical growers, processors, transporters, and dispensaries. An accompanying law requires the implementation of a database to track plants every step of the way, from garden to storage to transport to sale to disposal. Finally, lawmakers amended the MMMA to allow for edibles and other marijuana- infused products.

The first of the new grow licenses will likely be issued in 2018, and the changes are huge, expanding the cap from 75 plants to 1,500. But this freedom is tempered by fierce regulation. Facilities are subject to police examination at any time. Growers may only sell to processors or dispensaries—not patients. Growers may not transfer their own product but must instead rely on licensed transporters: teams of two chauffeurs who are required to enter their route plan and manifest into a statewide monitoring system.

Meanwhile, provisioning centers may only buy from licensed growers and may only sell to card-carrying patients. These dispensaries can’t have interest in transporting businesses or grow operations and must, of course, enter everything into the marijuana tracking system.

As is usually the case with state marijuana laws, local governments have the choice to opt out. Municipalities that opt in will have the power to establish zoning rules for cannabis facilities, dictate the number and type of facilities allowed, and set licensing fees (with a maximum cap of $5,000).

Although the new laws open up potentially exciting opportunities for Michigan’s cannabis industry, some industry insiders and patients are skeptical. Critics voice concerns that the new fees, regulations, and costs will be hard on existing small-time caregivers, and that Michigan’s medical industry will be taken over by big money. Meanwhile, longtime patients and caregivers worry that the 3% tax on dispensaries will make medicine more expensive, while growers voice concerns about the level of regulation. “I just don’t see regulation as the answer,” Bud Green says. “Free-market principles of supply and demand are what’s best for the future of the cannabis industry… We need less concern over cannabis law enforcement and more research into the amazing potentials this plant holds.”

The laws’ defenders counter these concerns, saying that the new regulations are actually designed to protect patients, dispensaries, and caregivers. Dispensaries that follow the rules will no longer fear shutdowns, patients will have more options, and one provision in the law is designed to protect longtime caregivers (until 2021, all licensed growers must employ at least one caregiver from the old system).

Despite his misgivings about over- regulation, Bud Green is optimistic that he can work within the system. As the elected township supervisor of Mueller, Michigan (population 282), Green overseas the town board and is working with the Cannabis Council to draft an ordinance to allow commercial cannabis facilities. He hopes that the cannabis industry will bring the jobs needed to revitalize the rural region.

In the end, both Green and Smith are in wait-and-see mode about the new laws. Smith predicts that established medical growers who have been playing by the rules shouldn’t have too many problems adjusting to the new rules. “I’m excited to see how it goes,” he says.