Listen in as Michigan medical marijuana dispensary owner Mark Passerini describes how Michigan is different than other states in terms of legalization, and how two pending laws promise to change the landscape significantly.
[2:04] – Mark’s background
[5:24] – The reaction of officials and city officers when they visit Om of Medicine
[6:03] – When did medical marijuana become legal in Michigan?
[8:11] – Two cannabis bills that were reintroduced for a vote in Michigan
[9:56] – How Michigan medical marijuana laws differ from other states
[11:43] – The trouble behind the medical marijuana access cards
[14:52] – Is there proposed legislation for hemp in Michigan?
[15:25] – Will adult use legalization occur in 2016?
[16:32] – Strategies cannabis advocates use to get their point heard
[18:02] – Mark discusses lab testing policy in Michigan
[19:16] – Contact details
Matthew: Hi, I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday and Wednesday look for a fresh episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the leaders of the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www.cannainsider.com. That’s www.cannainsider.com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity, when you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful, then you're ready. Ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www.canninsider.com/consulting. Now here's your program.
The landscape of cannabis legalization is very different from one state to the next. That is why I’ve brought Mark Passerini in from the front lines of Michigan to give us a brief on what is happening there. Even if you don’t live or operate a business in Michigan it’s very important to understand what is happening in different states like Michigan as regulators and politician often steal both good and bad ideas from each other’s playbook. Mark owns a medical marijuana dispensary in Ann Arbor, Michigan called Om of Medicine. Mark, welcome to CannaInsider.
Mark: Thanks for having me Matt. I’ve been listening to your show now for a few months and definitely honored to be a part of it. You’re doing the important work of getting that conversation out there for all to hear, and I for one appreciate what you do.
Matthew: Aw thank you. Now to give us a sense of geography where are you today?
Mark: I am currently in my hometown of Chicago where it’s a frigid four degrees currently. These are the kind of days that really make you question your sanity. I split my time between here and Ann Arbor, Michigan where my dispensary the Om of Medicine is.
Matthew: Okay so you spend, you split your time between one place that’s super cold and another place that’s super cold.
Mark: Yes again, I’m not sure that my sanity is in tact.
Matthew: Okay. Now can you give us a little background on yourself and how you came to own a dispensary?
Mark: Sure. So a little background on myself. I was born and raised in the city of Chicago, and since graduating from the University of Michigan I’ve enjoyed a 20 year career in sales and sales management. Before opening the Om of Medicine I was in another green sector, the renewable energy field. I worked for a company that manufactured high efficiency lighting, as well as a company based in Boulder, Colorado called Renewable Choice Energy which was recently named the EPA’s Green Partner of the Year.
Mark: Yeah. Back in 2010 I got a call from a good friend of mine in Michigan who had a business plan for a medical cannabis dispensary in Lansing, the state capital. And he needed some startup funds to open. So my best friend Keith and I were eager to help out, having been cannabis advocates all of our adult lives as well as having both witnessed firsthand the medical efficacy of the plant. I had personally had slipped discs in my back back in early O’s and shortly after that Keith was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. On top of that my mother is a cancer survivor, but she also suffers from horrible neuropathy caused by her diabetes, and she’s on a ridiculous cocktail of pharmaceuticals. Some prescribed just to offset the side effects of others. So really it just made perfect sense to embark on this journey for a whole plethora of reasons.
Shortly after we opened in Lansing, we decided that being silent investors and really having no operational responsibilities wasn’t very fulfilling, and we decided to open up our own collective in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So I’m not sure how much you or your listeners know about Ann Arbor, but it’s always had very sensible cannabis policies. They were one of the very first cities in the country to decriminalize possession back in the early 70s when it became a $5 fine.
Mark: Yeah that was, I think it was ’71, ’72 and then they adjusted it for inflation. Today it’s a $25 fine. Keith and I actually learned that fact back in the late 1900s when we were stopped by an Ann Arbor police officer after just having partaken and really our whole lives could have drastically changed if that particular law wasn’t in place. So Ann Arbor was also, they were actually four years ahead of the state in passing its own medical cannabis laws in 2004 with a whopping 74% of the vote in the city.
Mark: Yeah. So Ann Arbor’s really been ahead of its time when it comes to cannabis and it just kind of made sense to open in the city that embraced cannabis, and of course the fact that I spent four and a half of the most formative years of my life there. We opened back in July of 2010, and when we opened we set out to be the most transparent and compliant facility in the state. So we opened our doors to pretty much everybody that was willing to have the discussion. Since we’ve been open, we’ve had dozens of state reps and senators come through. We’ve had our past two mayors, our city attorney, the entire city council, even the chief of police actually met with us for an hour when we first opened.
Matthew: Do you see the kind of light bulb go off when people come through, officials and regulators and they say oh my god, this isn’t some crazy place. This is a sensible business.
Mark: Absolutely. I mean I think that’s the most effective way to go about it really. People fear what they don’t know, and you know, a lot of times if they’re ignorant on cannabis, cannabis culture or its medical efficacy, you know, if they don’t have the conversation with somebody and if they aren’t educated, you know, worst possible scenarios pop up in their heads. And what’s scary is that, you know, a lot of these people are making laws without all of the information.
Matthew: Yeah. Now we’ve heard a little bit about Ann Arbor. How about the state of Michigan? When did medical marijuana become legal in the whole state?
Mark: So it was actually four years after Ann Arbor did it, and it passed by a ballot initiative in 2008 and it got 63% of the vote. It actually won by a majority in every single county and district in the state, even the most conservative areas were at least 50 percent. So we’ve had the law in place for seven years now almost.
Matthew: And how have things evolved since then?
Mark: Well you know, unfortunately there hasn’t been too many positive changes. Michigan was the 13th to pass medical cannabis laws, and as you know there are now 23 states that have cannabis laws, medical cannabis of course for adult use. The country’s capital, Washington D.C. of course have passed such laws, but it’s been a struggle in Michigan. You know every state after Michigan has implemented a distribution system so that patients can safely access their medicine. Unfortunately our Attorney General has been a staunch opponent of the law and really had a detrimental affect on the implementation of it since day one.
The patients in Michigan have taken a few blows over the years from bad circuit court of appeal’s decisions to new laws that just make it easier for law enforcement to arrest patients. For example one of the laws that passed a few years ago involved transportation of medical cannabis where patients have to carry the cannabis in the trunk of their vehicle as if it’s a gun. Meanwhile of course you can walk into a Walgreens, pick up your Vicodin, throw it in your pocket, drive with an unopened fifth of Jack Daniels in your lap and that’s okay. So it’s just kind of another way for law enforcement to target patients. And most recently the community has lobbied extensively for two pro medical marijuana bills to pass through the legislature that was blocked by the Sheriff’s Association when they called their state senators the night before the vote and asked that they vote no. And this kind of swayed a few votes and ultimately the bills never went up for a vote.
Matthew: What were those bills about?
Mark: Well I mean they just got reintroduced, but the bills are about re-legalizing the use of topicals, extract, concentrates and edibles because right now it’s the flower and leaves of the plant are protected which really makes no sense. We see a lot of patients that have never smoked anything in their lives and to assume that that’s the delivery method that they’re going to want to use is pretty ludicrous. The other bill is a bill which basically regulates dispensaries or (8.44 unclear) centers and (8.45 unclear).
Matthew: Okay so the Sheriff’s Association kind of got those put on the backburner before, and now they’ve been reintroduced and will they be voted on soon?
Mark: Hopefully. They were just introduced about a week and a half ago, and you know it looks like that we’re getting some momentum. The governor’s office seems to be behind it. Pretty much in terms of the sponsors it’s a bipartisan bill. We got half republicans, half democrats. So it looks like it has a pretty good shot. We’ve been working on this thing for, the dispensary bill in particular, we’ve been working on this bill for 3 ½ years. It started out House Bill 5580 which really went nowhere. Went to House Bill 4271 which got, like I said, blocked by the sheriffs and police chiefs last session in December. So now we have House Bill 4209 and 4210 which hopefully we can pass this year.
Matthew: Mark for listeners that may not be familiar with Michigan’s cannabis laws, can you tell us how they’re unique and different from other states where medical marijuana is legal?
Mark: Sure. So in Michigan the supply is generated from thousands of small gardens throughout the state. Patients and their caregivers creating really an incredible diversity of choices of strains and products instead of a few massive corporate cultivation facilities with limited strain choices. In Michigan a patient is allowed to grow their own medicine, up to 12 plants and caregivers can grow 12 plants for each of their patients which their allowed to have up to five. So if they’re also a patient (10.27 unclear) to a maximum of 72 plants per caregiver.
So for comparison sake the state of Illinois for example is in the process of implementing its medical marijuana program where there are a total of only 60 cultivation facilities in the state Where in Michigan all of the approximately 100,000 patients are able to grow their own 12 plants. Then of course 25,000 caregivers can grow up to 72 plants. Another kind of unique thing is that Michigan also has a state registry system that includes the issuance of a license that’s supposed to make those participants operating within the parameters describe the law (11.07 unclear). The Michigan medical marijuana law also contains an affirmative defense for patients and caregivers registered or unregistered with the state. So those are some unique things about Michigan laws as opposed to most other states.
Matthew: Okay Now Michigan requires a state issued medical marijuana access card, but many residents complain the card isn’t properly respected by certain regulators of officials or law enforcement. Can you tell us a little bit why that is?
Mark: Well the licenses aren’t necessarily require. If one chooses to participate in the registry program that meets the requirements and is issued a card then that person is supposed to be immune from (11.53 unclear) and there is supposed to be a presumption of innocence when the card is presented in a law enforcement encounter . The problem is in many areas, Oakland County for example, Oakland County is considered to be the egregious. The card is pretty much disregarded and the protections are totally ignored. And really to make it worse specific strategies used by the prosecutors are often defined to circumvent the ability for patients and caregivers to use the affirmative defense that’s supposed to be available for any marijuana prosecution.
Matthew: Wow. How does that work? I mean how do they get around that?
Mark: You know again it’s really interesting. Michigan is, it’s a real patchwork policy right now. So it depends on where you are. I mean some municipalities will really kind of embrace and tolerate so to speak, while others are completely intolerant. And it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating for patients, especially right now where there’s so few… there’s about 150 dispensaries operating in the state, and some folks have to drive 3 or 4 hours to access their medicine and oftentimes they have to drive through certain counties which are completely intolerant. So it’s terrifying to, you know. We’ve seen so many people get enrolled in the legal system. It’s not an ideal world just yet.
Matthew: Okay so in 2013 the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that dispensaries aren’t legal is that correct?
Mark: Well no. They actually didn’t rule that dispensaries are illegal. They ruled in part on what kind of transfers are protected from arrest and which aren’t.
Matthew: Oh okay.
Mark: Since some transfers typically occurring in dispensaries which are often in commercially zoned buildings to be consider illegal then the local government can consider it to be an illegal business or a public nuisance and find it in violation of zoning codes. But if the activity in the building is allowed under state law or if the local government doesn’t care to make an issue out of it, despensaries continue operating. Like I said there’s about 150 dispensaries operating in the state. So Matt when it comes down to it the only rule of law that it’s open to interpretation. Hopefully we can get these two bills passed so that it kind of clarifies things for local governments.
Matthew: Yeah, sometimes a gray area is good in laws, but other times it’s frustrating because, you know, you have to, individuals and businesses that have limited funds have to go up against state or municipal regulators that really have tax payer funds to prosecute your case. So it’s really an unbalanced playing field in my opinion.
Matthew: How about hemp? Is there any proposed legislation for hemp in Michigan?
Mark: Actually there are two bills, two hemp bills recently passed and were signed by the governor. Yeah House Bill 5439 and 5440. One reschedules hemp in the state, and the other allows for research. And I believe they were passed and signed by the governor in December of last year.
Matthew: How great. Great.
Mark: Yep, it’s about time.
Matthew: How likely is full adult use legalization to occur in say 2016?
Mark: Well Michigan was actually the very first state to ratify the 21st Amendment which repealed prohibition. So hopefully that’s a good sign, but I would say it’s about 50/50 shot. Currently it seems that there may be two competing ballot initiative much like what’s going on in Ohio right now. But based on a few recent polls in Michigan and national polling on the issue. If the legislature is interested in expressing and respecting the will of the people or if the question were to make it to the voters by way of a statewide ballot initiative, it could very well be the law in 2016. It’s going to be interesting because we will have a bill which about to be introduced here in the next month or two which would start the conversation at the legislative level.
Matthew: Now what do lawmakers seem to respond to in terms of cannabis advocates being heard? Is there any specific tactics or strategies you’ve seen be successful?
Mark: Yeah I mean I would say that you know the law makers are concerned with a lot of things that cannabis represents. And even the most skeptical are willing to actually research the issue. They can’t deny the economic health benefits that changing current cannabis policy could bring to the people and the state. And we’re seeing both republicans, democrats, libertarians, tea partiers, they’re all starting to come on board. And I think the most effective way is to get the lawmakers to really evaluate and change their minds on the issue is really a deeply, heartfelt testimonial of their constituents. At Om of Medicine we’ve been really active in getting the stories that we hear from our patients into the ears of policy makers. Over the past five years we’ve seen over 7,000 patients and caregivers, and success stories are really plentiful, and it’s just a matter of getting those stories into the right ears. Then of course fundraisers, you know, money is always going to be a part of it. Unfortunately politics and money are so intertwined these days that it doesn’t seem like things can get done without affective fund raising.
Matthew: Now in terms of lab testing in Michigan, is there any required? Here in Colorado we kind of have the strange situation where recreational adult use cannabis testing is required but not the medical which you would think would be the opposite. But what’s going on in terms of lab testing in Michigan?
Mark: So really nothing currently. I mean there is no requirement by the state although many places like ours have been voluntary. We’ve been voluntarily testing our medicine. Right now the lab testing market in Michigan is just based on the desire of consumers and producer to know more about the medicine that’s being produced. Some like to know that it’s been screened for pesticides and molds and what the cannabinoid profile is, but there is no state law concerning cannabis testing. The language has recently reintroduced provisioning center at the dispensary bill would mandate that safety compliance centers test for things such as pesticides, molds and other contaminants. But at this it’s really just a desire of consumers to find out what the cannabinoid profile is and the potency to make sure that it’s clean. We do test all of our medicine. I think the same goes for almost, probably half of the dispensaries in the state.
Matthew: Now Mark in closing what is the best way for listeners to stay abreast of what’s going on in Michigan in terms of cannabis legalization?
Mark: There’s a really good weekly, internet radio show hosted by some of the state’s top activists called Planet Green Trees, and that’s a weekly show. I think it’s on Thursday nights, and that’s definitely a good way to stay abreast of what’s going on. There’s also an online source called the Compassion Chronicles. I think it’s just www.compassionchronicles.com, and they have a pretty thorough rundown of what’s going on in the state.
Matthew: And what’s the best way for listeners to find out more about your dispensary in Ann Arbor?
Mark: Well we have a website it’s www.omofmedicine.org. Or you can like us on Facebook. On Facebook we always have updates and events and news stories.
Matthew: Well Mark thanks for coming on CannaInsider. We really appreciate it.
Mark: Absolutely. Thanks for having me Matt.
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