After a 2003 auto accident left Buchanan’s Craig Linn with a spinal cord injury, he tried everything to help relieve the pain.

But each new drug provided little relief, he says.

In early 2010, Linn was approved for a medical marijuana card, which he credits with helping him get through each day.

“It helps me to be a lot more coherent,” says Linn, who uses a wheelchair and is considered an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning he has some movement. “It helps. Before I had a lot of muscle spasms. It mainly relaxes me.”

Linn, 50, estimates the drug eliminates between 30 percent and 40 percent of the pain. He usually smokes morning, noon and evening each day.

As possible regulations to the medical marijuana law are being proposed, Linn says there are likely people out there with cards who don’t particularly need the drug, but added that’s why cards must be renewed every year.

Regarding regulations, he says they are fine to some extent. “It’s like anything else. As long as (the law) is not overturned, and it’s not taken away from me.”

The Michigan Medical Marijuana Act, which was passed by 63 percent of voters Nov. 4, 2008, was aimed at opening the door for those with pain and medical problems to find relief from their suffering.

But some public officials and lawmakers say it may have left the door too wide open, causing widespread abuse of the law’s intention.

The law is vague to some authorities who say they are sometimes not sure what is or isn’t permitted.

“It’s just become a joke; it’s making a mockery of the good intentions of the public,” said Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter, a staunch supporter of additional regulations of the drug.

“Truly sick people can have this, but it’s just becoming a cover for some people.”

Many cardholders, though, say the law legalizing medical marijuana has been unfairly attacked by lawmakers.

Dispensaries closed

In recent months, medical marijuana has been at the forefront as opponents and proponents grapple with potential changes to the law.

The biggest jolt came in August, when a three-judge Michigan court of appeals panel banned marijuana dispensaries, as well as state-issued medical marijuana cardholders, from selling pot.

That limited the way cardholders can receive the drug - and sent thousands to Lansing to protest over the past couple of months. Cardholders are permitted to possess up to 2.5 ounces of “usable” pot and grow up to 12 plants in a locked place.

Because dispensaries were shut down, the lone way for cardholders to acquire marijuana, aside from growing it themselves, is to obtain it from a registered caregiver, who can provide for no more than five patients at a time.

Currently, there are a combined 20 bills and three others yet to be introduced in the House and Senate aimed at tackling some of the perceived vagueness of the medical marijuana law.

Regarding the dispensaries, Michael Kormon, a Southfield, Mich., attorney and president of the 24,000-member Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, said closing them is only going to cause some people to transfer marijuana privately and not publicly to avoid getting caught.

While some lawmakers say the overall marijuana law is open to interpretation, township and cities have been busy passing their own ordinances in hopes of setting boundaries, which many cardholders complain threatens their rights and undermines the law.

For instance, many state colleges, most recently Eastern Michigan University, banned medical marijuana on campus.

Proposed legislation

Some legislators, including state Sen. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, say there needs to be consistency.

“Confusion about Michigan’s medical marijuana law has effectively tied the hands of local community officials and law enforcement,” Proos said. “I applaud the appeals court for cleaning up much of the ambiguity in the law with regards to legally selling marijuana.”

Proos has co-sponsored several of the bills up for discussion.

“(I want) to make it clear what is intended under the act,” he says. “These reforms include clearly stating that driving after using marijuana is illegal and making it a felony to falsely obtain a medical marijuana card.

“(We want to make sure it’s) not being exploited by healthy people as a way to obtain the drug for recreational use.”

Kormon says the law is under attack by judges “in the comforts of their chambers who don’t have to see or face the pain and discomfort.”

“The law is intentionally written broadly to never be able to ignore the need of a sick person,” Kormon says. “This law shouldn’t be looked at or interpreted by law enforcement when looking at medical issues.”

Some of the proposals on tap this legislative session, for example, would make it illegal to smoke pot in a home 500 feet or less from a school, day care or church, and make it illegal for a provider to give a cardholder pot within 1,000 feet of those three types of sites.

Doctor-patient

One of the most debated bills is aimed at making stricter doctor-patient relationships before a patient can get authorization for a card.

The recommendation would require a physical examination and a medical history to be evaluated before a card would be given.

“It analyzes your condition and needs for the medical marijuana,” Proos says.

Another proposal would make a list of what ailments are medically cleared for medical marijuana. That could include a list of the “chronic pains” would be acceptable. The majority of cardholders are approved by doctors for some sort of chronic pain.

“That helps to protect the physician and those who legally have the right for chronic illness purposes,” Proos says.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, meanwhile, would like to make it a felony for physicians to knowingly give false certification of a patient’s debilitating condition and to knowingly submit false information on an application for a patient or caregiver card, according to the AP.

Most doctors in the state are not in the practice of even prescribing medical marijuana, though, and none are locally, says Southwest Michigan Compassion Club president Bruce Reith. He says that many hospitals and clinics do not allow their doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, which he disagrees with since it is legal.

Many cardholders travel to the east side of the state, Reith says, and get approved by a pro medical marijuana doctor.

Proos said only 55 doctors in the state have prescribed medical marijuana since the law took effect nearly three years ago. He added that may reflect doctors who are opposed to allowing the prescription or have concerns with the clarity of the law.

On the other side of that debate, Proos says there was a case in which a traveling doctor from another state came in and prescribed medical marijuana to more than 100 people, sometimes for reasons as minor as ankle pain.

Legislation also has been introduced that would require people who move into the state to wait one year before getting a prescription. That, some lawmakers say, should cut down on people who are renting houses in the state just to get a card.

Police agencies, meanwhile, would like a better system to verify the authenticity of cards. Some are concerned that it’s difficult to tell fakes from legitimate ones.

By the numbers

Cotter says widespread changes are coming. He says the closing of the dispensaries was a step in the right direction, and will stop medical marijuana from becoming a moneymaking industry in the state.

He also says he believes too many people - many of whom he believes are fine medically - are obtaining cards.

To illustrate his point, he cited a case out of Ann Arbor, in which a car of four seemingly healthy college students was pulled over by police, and all four had medical marijuana cards, Cotter says.

“I think what happens is there are so many doors that advocates for the outright legalization of marijuana can drive a truck through (the law),” he said.

Cotter also questions the credibility of some of the doctors who are issuing cards. The medical reasons for cards being issued, he says, in some cases, are as vague as “high heel pain.”

Although about 80,000 cards have been given as of a couple months ago, Cotter cites statistics from April this year when 63,736 had been approved. Of the reasons people received cards, 36,560 were for chronic pain, 15,479 for muscle spasms, 7,303 for nausea and 1,407 for cancer.“I believe that people who voted for this believed it would be for people who are truly sick, like cancer patients,” Cotter says.

Kormon, though, blamed the government for creating the current problems.

“The reality is they have caused more problems,” he says. “It’s bureaucracy at its greatest. ... They’ve become an outright failure. They’re criticizing the voters who voted for the law, trying to change it and treading on our democratic process.

“There’s a number of different bills. You can make more laws, so you can arrest more people, but that’s not what was intended here. The idea should be to look for more serious types of crimes. Start using the resources where they’re really needed.”

Gathered together

Many local medical marijuana cardholders gathered recently in Buchanan. Although most of the 60 people in attendance smoked cigarettes during breaks, there was no marijuana smoking, which is illegal in public settings.

But there was plenty of talk about current happenings regarding pot.

Don Barnes, vice president of the Compassion Club, said clubs across the state must fight back.

“We need to put our heads together and figure out how we’re going to fix it,” he says. “We have to build a framework here, and connect with other Compassion Clubs in the state. We need to set a time and table.”

But like Reith, Barnes is also out to change the perception in the process.

During the recent meeting, Barnes discussed community drives with The Salvation Army and a backpack program for kids on food stamps. There’s also opportunities to volunteer at senior centers, as well as roadside cleanup, he says.

“We want to change the perception of the caregiver and the patient in the community,” he says. “We have an opportunity to make a difference.”

Cardholder Geoff Hurst, who recently traveled to Lansing to discuss medical marijuana issues with senators and prosecutors, is concerned with the legislation.

One bill, for example, would make it illegal for felons to become caregivers and allow local officials to regulate places where pot can be smoked or grown.

Although Hurst understands the need for some of the proposals, he questions others. For example, what happens for a cardholder who has lived next to a school for 30 years and is now told he lives too close to smoke at his own house?

Hurst is in favor of legislation that would require a cardholder’s picture on the card. But he doesn’t think it’s fair that marijuana must be locked in a box in a car.

Reith, meanwhile, questioned the prosecutor’s claims that it’s so easy to get.

“Who’s to say what chronic pain is and whether it’s an issue for that person?” he asks.

And Reith, and dozens of members of the club, seek to change what they see as a perception that medical marijuana is a party drug and not medical treatment for conditions such as cancer and chronic pain.

“What we want is to change the perception from a bunch of stoners, and have people look at it as a medical procedure,” Reith says.

“The average age of a medical marijuana cardholder is 45. We’re not a bunch of kids trying to get high.”

Staff writer Tom Moor:
tmoor@sbtinfo.com
574-235-6234