GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Medical marijuana dispensaries in Grand Rapids have come under fire after a state Supreme Court ruling appears to have outlawed the businesses.
Two people associated with dispensaries have been arrested and face three drug-related charges. Warrants have been issued for two more people affiliated with dispensaries operating in the city.
The message from the Grand Rapids Police Department and the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office is clear.
“I cannot think of a way legally you can operate a dispensary now,” said Chris Becker, Kent County’s chief assistant prosecutor .
The latest legal blockade to medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan is a February ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court in a Mt. Pleasant case. In a case against Brandon McQueen and Matthew Taylor, owners of the CA dispensary, the court ruled Michigan’s 2008 medical marijuana law “does not contemplate patient-to-patient sales of marijuana for medical use.”
Becker said the ruling is clear, dispensaries are banned.
Legal or not, advocates of Michigan’s medical marijuana law and the patients who use the federally prohibited drug as medicine say police and prosecutors should back off.
“I think it’s wrong. I don’t think it should have been dealt with this way. I don’t think they should have arrested them,” said Bruce Block, a Grand Rapids attorney who has handled several medical marijuana-related cased. “There is no reason to make them felons.”
Block called the state Supreme Court’s ruling in the McQueen case a “death nail” to dispensaries and the “knock-out punch.” He would have advised any dispensaries operating in the state to shut down, agreeing with Becker that the ruling clarified the law in that regard.
The Grand Rapids attorney, however, questioned whether police and prosecutors were right to enforce the ruling and if lawmakers should stand back and let it happen. Shutting down dispensaries will cut off access to marijuana for many patients. The state should have found a way to keep dispensaries open, Block said.
“If the intent is help real people, we should not try to restrict where they can get it. We should make it easier,” Block said. “Is it a compliance problem? Yes…that’s not an excuse to completely disregard the will of the people, which is happening.
“Maybe those who oppose it should meet with some patients. Maybe they should meet with some real people who are being helped, and then we can work together to help make it available.”
Grand Rapids police used the ruling to finalize their investigations into three dispensaries operating in the city, Mid-Michigan Compassion Club, Natural Wellness and Associates and Purple Med. In March, police raided the shops, confiscating marijuana, baked goods, equipment and paperwork.
Lt. Richard Nawrocki, head of the Grand Rapids Police Department’s vice division, said the three dispensaries were under investigation even before the state Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
“Once they made the ruling, it certainly cleared up things,” Nawrocki said.
David Overholt, founder of the Mid-Michigan Compassion Club, turned himself in to police on April 5. He faces charges of delivering or manufacturing narcotics, delivering or manufacturing marijuana and frequenting a drug house, according to jail records. The delivering or manufacturing narcotics charge is from the cannabis oil Overholt extracts from marijuana and bakes into candy.
A person affiliated with Purple Med was arrested Wednesday on similar charges, but police have not identified the suspect in that case. Additional warrants were issued for a people connected to Purple Med and Natural Wellness Associates, authorities said. Arrangements are being made for the others to turn themselves in to authorities.
In March, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office sent letters asking dispensaries in the county to close, Undersheriff Jon Hess wrote in an email. There have been no recent raids or arrests by deputies; however at least one grow operation is under investigation. Hess would not comment on the ongoing investigation.
The Grand Rapids arrests and raids are the only recent police actions in the state that have come to the attention of Thomas Lavigne, a Detroit-based attorney with Cannabis Counsel, a group of attorneys representing clients with medical marijuana-related cases across the state.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in McQueen did not outlaw all dispensaries, Lavigne contended. He said each time a court rules, opponents of the state’s medical marijuana law predict the end of dispensaries. Each time, the opponents are wrong, Lavigne said.
“They are wrong again this time,” Lavigne said about the McQueen ruling. “The ruling was restricted to the facts of that case and that particular business model, and that was a very particular business model.”
The dispensary model challenged in McQueen was a patient-to-patient system. Medical marijuana patients would provide marijuana to other patients.
Overholt, the Mid-Michigan Compassion Club founder facing drug charges, claimed his caregiver-to-caregiver model was legal and not affected by the McQueen ruling. But Block, the Grand Rapids attorney, felt the ruling also made caregiver-to-caregiver dispensaries illegal.
Lavigne said the McQueen ruling left the door open for other dispensary models. A dispensary could be a place where a cargiver meets with his or her assigned patients to provide medicine, Lavigne said.
Or, a dispensary could be a place where the marijuana is exchanged under a barter system. Lavigne said that a selling agreement where both the buyer and the seller are treating their medical needs — exchanging marijuana — would be legal. The seller who receives only $200 for a bag of marijuana is in violation of the law. The seller who receives $200 plus a joint is not, Lavigne said.
Lavigne also felt the crackdown under the McQueen ruling hurt patients relying on marijuana for medicine. Closing dispensaries opens a black market.
“It’s forcing them into back alleys to find access,” Lavigne said.
Jacob Regan, a former director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Grand Rapids, said the black market is already starting to regain its footing in the city. Regan left NORML and will soon start a new non-profit group advocating for the rights of medical marijuana patients and the decriminalization of the drug.
Regan said many dispensary owners care about the health of their patients and are pained by seeing them go without medicine. He called Overholt a “martyr,” a man willing to serve a prison sentence to fight for the law.
“I almost feel they are being forced underground,” Regan said of dispensary owners. “They don’t want to hide anything. They have nothing to hide.”
In Grand Rapids, police will continue to work with the prosecutor’s office to enforce the court’s ruling. Nawrocki said if raided dispensaries continue to operate, police will visit until they close.