Medical marijuana on the rise in Macomb County
A portion of the marijuana that was seized by Sterling Heights police at a city home Wednesday. City police say they will issue citations for any location not registered in Sterling Heights. Photo provided by Sterling Heights Police Department
As the number of medical marijuana caregivers and patients in Macomb County and across Michigan continues to increase, more changes are in the works for the 2008 voter-approved law that legalized medical marijuana in Michigan.
New laws passed last fall regulate the growing and distribution of medical marijuana in Michigan and allows for provisioning centers. It’s the latest change in state statues aiming to clarify the 2008 ballot proposal.
The new regulatory system, expected to be in place by the end of the year, is hoped to bring order to medical marijuana distribution. The lack of, or vagueness, of regulations has been criticized for leading to criminal prosecutions of people who thought they were complying with the intent of the ballot proposal. Many of those prosecutions remain unresolved.
Passed last year, the new laws seek to create a tightly controlled system for making and distributing medical marijuana, cited by advocates as easing complications from numerous medical conditions.
The newest legislation establishes licensed growers that can sell to licensed processors or dispensaries, who then sell to patients and caregivers.
Until now, growing medical marijuana has been limited to licensed patients or caregivers, with limits on the number of plants and — for caregivers — limits on the number of registered patients.
The demand for marijuana as medicine as grown significantly from 2011 through 2016. Statewide, there were 218,556 medical marijuana patients in 2016. That’s up significantly from the preceding year, when there were 182,081 patients, and the 96,408 in 2014.
The number of caregivers also grew for the third consecutive year, from 22,966 in 2014; 34,269 in 2015; and 38,107 last year.
Macomb County had 229 registered medical marijuana patients in 2011 and 19,455 in 2016, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The number of caregivers in Macomb last year stood at 3,304.
A sampling of other counties shows:
• Oakland County had 661 registered patients in 2011 and 24,416 in 2016.
• Wayne County had 4,191 registered patients in 2011 and 34,941 in 2016.
In more rural outstate areas, the growth in medical marijuana patients has mostly been slower, but not always:
• Clare County had 825 registered patients in 2011 and 931 in 2016.
• Gratiot County had 738 patients in 2011 and 978 in 2016.
• Isabella County had 148 registered patients in 2011 and 1,113 in 2016.
The new regulations may also be a chance for municipalities, some of which have shunned medical marijuana, to capitalize on taxes and fees from allowing the businesses.
In the past year, local regulations on medical marijuana have been passed in communities including Warren, Sterling Heights, Shelby Township and Center Line.
Warren Mayor James Fouts has been critical of Michigan’s medical marijuana law after its passage, saying it often amounted to “pot for profit.”
After multiple moratoriums by the Warren City Council on new businesses involved in medicinal pot, the mayor pushed the council in 2015 and 2016 to pass an ordinance featuring a series of regulations, including licensing, of medical marijuana. He announced the measures a few days after an explosion at a house that fire investigators said was caused by a buildup of fumes involving the extraction of oil from marijuana plants.
The council eventually approved a medical marijuana ordinance in April 2016.
Council members butted heads with Fouts a few months later. In September 2016, the council changed the portion of the city’s zoning law regarding the distance between medicinal pot facilities and residential neighborhoods, schools, parks, day care centers and recreation centers. The ordinance initially restricted the cultivation of such marijuana to industrial properties located at least 1,000 feet from homes, schools and the other locations. Officials approved a new setback of at least 500 feet from the corner of any building where medical marijuana is grown and processed, to any residential zone or the other types of properties and buildings. Fouts vetoed the measure, insisting the 1,000-foot rule should stand and claimed the 500-foot rule could put medical marijuana facilities too close to homes, parks, schools, churches and day care centers.
In a hastily called special meeting, the council later voted to override the veto.
Meantime, pre-trial work continues in a lawsuit filed in September 2015 against the City of Warren by a group of medical marijuana caregivers who leased space in an office building that was raided twice by police.
The office building, on Hoover Road north of 12 Mile, is owned by attorney Michael Greiner. Greiner, who was deputy mayor to former mayor Mark Steenbergh, leased space where marijuana was cultivated and caregives transferred it to patients. Police executed two search warrants in 2015. Several individuals were issued tickets for use of property without a certificate of occupancy, and city officials reported numerous building code violations.
With Greiner as their attorney, the 23 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city, claiming their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection under the law and protection from unreasonable search and seizure, were violated. Defendants include Fouts, Police Commissioner Jere Green, two building inspectors and an undercover detective.
“They could have contacted us. They didn’t have to proceed as if we were criminals,” Greiner said of city officials. “We would have been happy to have police come in.”
The number of plaintiffs has narrowed to those with the strongest claims, he said.
The tickets issued to building occupants have been deferred, pending the outcome of the civil case in federal court.
Lawyers for the city have been taking depositions from plaintiffs. Greiner and another attorney for the plaintiffs, Deborah Gordon, will then question city officials.
“We’re planning on deposing Fouts, so that will be interesting,” Greiner said.
Big marijuana bust
Following voter passage of Michigan’s medical marijuana law, some law enforcement officials lamented it was vague and could be a magnet for other crimes like burglaries and robberies. Sometimes, police don’t know if a marijuana operation being investigated is legal or illicit.
In Sterling Heights, the City Council passed a medical marijuana ordinance in 2014 and updated it in 2016. Acting on a request from police, the council last July adopted a standing resolution authorizing the city attorney to file lawsuits in Macomb County Circuit Court to abate neighborhood nuisances where marijuana is grown.
On Wednesday, the Sterling Heights Police Department’s Crime Suppression Unit raided a home in the 2000 block of Deveere Drive, near Dequindre and 14 Mile roads, uncovering a large –- but illegal — marijuana growing operation.
Police seized 5 pounds of processed and package marijuana and 42 large plants that had not yet been cultivated for sale. The plants could have yielded an estimated 30 pounds of pot with a potential street value between $60,000 and $120,000, police said.
They also confiscated cash, two vehicles and other illegal drugs. Nobody inside had medical marijuana cards, and the amount of pot was far more than the amount any individual caregiver is allowed to grow. Criminal charges are likely to be filed against one individual.
The sparsely furnished house was rented from the owner, who may not have been aware of what was going on inside and is will not face criminal charges, Sterling Heights Police Chief John Berg said.
The raid culminated a two-month investigation and was the 38th on illegal marijuana growing in the city in the past 2 ½ years.
For marijuana grown, cultivated and packaged for medicinal purposes, Sterling Heights police vow to issue citations at any location that is not registered under the city’s ordinance.
“We deal with it every day,” Berg said. “We have empathy for people who need medical marijuana. Ninety-nine percent of the stuff is not grown for that. We know that.”
They hope more caregivers in Sterling Heights become aware that registration of medical marijuana –- which includes inspections of facilities by building and fire inspectors –- is mandatory.
The chief said police and city officials hope further changes are made by state lawmakers to ban all medical marijuana growth and cultivation from residential areas.
“We’re trying to get all of these out of neighborhoods eventually, through legislation, because it doesn’t belong in our neighborhoods,” Berg added.
Neil Rockind is an Oakland County attorney who sits on the legal advisory board of the advocacy group My Compassion.
He expects the new regulatory structure to set up a medical marijuana provisioning center will be vigorous.
“There are some people who think this will be like (getting) a fishing license,” Rockind said. “I anticipate it’s going to be more complicated. People will have to show they have the licensing and wherewithal to open one from the ground up.
“Ultimately, people are going to be able to obtain local permits and licenses that choose to opt in to having medical marijuana commercial facilities within their city limits.”
It’s up to cities to decide if having medical marijuana provisioning centers within their limits is desirable, but Rockind said they’ll be able to decide how to regulate them.
“Cities can choose to allow certain types of facilities, a limited number of facilities, choose to zone them, or pass any rules they want,” Rockind said.
“For some cities it’s going to be a real boom. It can invigorate industrial or other areas that were neglected and generate substantial revenues.”
Digital First Media’s Charles Crumm contributed to this report.