When Deborah Young of Ferndale sent her $60 fee to Lansing this year to register as a medical-marijuana user, she assumed the state would use her money to review her paperwork and print her ID card.
The fees are “for the operation and oversight of the Michigan medical marihuana program,” says state law — spelling marijuana with an “h,” the old-fashioned way as in federal law.
Last month, though, Young said she and other card holders were shocked to learn that Michigan’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs — LARA — had built up so much in fees that it gave $1.2 million to 18 county sheriffs, including those in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. The grants are intended via legislative approval to be used by sheriffs for training and enforcement of Michigan’s medical marijuana act.
“They’re raiding the same people who paid those fees,” said Young, 58, who has glaucoma, a serious eye disease approved for medical-marijuana treatment in Michigan.
“We couldn’t believe it,” said Young. Ferndale residents learned not only that the Oakland County Sheriff received fee revenue from the ID cards but that their own city’s police department was set to get a share of it for use in medical-marijuana investigations.
The Oakland County Sheriff’s Office received $323,725 this year from LARA, according to a county memo sent to cities getting the grant offers. According to the memo, the county sheriff plans to spend $98,000 on 28 raid-style bulletproof vests, $80,000 on a Chevrolet van, pickup and trailer to transport seized marijuana plants; $10,000 to train investigators, and $134,000 for overtime pay to medical-marijuana investigators. Much of the overtime pay is being offered to 15 communities in Oakland County that lend officers to OAKNET — the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team.
The Ferndale City Council rubber-stamped the grant without discussion in mid-July. Rochester and Royal Oak city councils also voted last month to accept grant money. Ferndale’s share of $5,582 was to pay overtime for officers in countywide medical-marijuana raids, according to the county memo.
When Young and other residents began calling the city to complain, the council put the grant back on its agenda. And it prompted Young to stand before the council members to demand that they rescind their decision.
“Why would we need a medical-marijuana oversight grant in Ferndale? Why would we even be a part of something to harass sick people?” she told council members.
Her questions also prompted bigger ones: Whether medical-marijuana users are primarily law-abiding Michiganders who merely seek a respite from pain and other conditions approved for medical-marijuana treatment; or whether they’re mainly seeking a sensory high, with the aid of complicit doctors willing to sign forms, and of drug dealers bent on making big profits while dodging federal drug laws.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said he sees dispensary operators as a serious threat to society.
“These grants aren’t to prosecute someone who’s not breaking the law,” Bouchard said. Oakland County’s memo offering grants to local police departments, provided to 15 city councils and township boards, said that medical marijuana “is being smuggled, mailed and transported into Oakland County from other states on a regular basis.” Michigan’s medical marijuana act, a vague law passed by voters in 2008, is an invitation to drug dealing, profiteering and the involvement of organized crime, Bouchard said.
Bouchard is unabashed about his vigorous campaign to wipe out dispensaries in Oakland County, citing a state Supreme Court ruling in 2011, which Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has said means that most dispensaries were illegal in Michigan. Law enforcement officials in some counties, including Wayne, have tolerated the spread of dispensaries, but Bouchard said he is adamantly opposed to such leniency.
Oakland County investigators recently learned that two workers at a chain of four dispensaries, operating in Wayne and Oakland counties, were shot by a rival group, he said.
“One individual was murdered. The other was shot several times, but survived,” Bouchard said, adding: “I don’t care what some other counties are doing. The law says these types of facilities are illegal (and) they put law-abiding citizens at risk.”
The practice of turning medical-marijuana users’ fees against them by police agencies is not new in Michigan, although this year’s escalation of grants was shocking, said Rick Thompson, editor of the online Compassion Chronicles, a blog for medical-marijuana patients.
“This started out as a small, hidden part of the state’s budget in fiscal year 2014,” Thompson said. As the medical-marijuana funds swelled from cranking out ID cards, the Legislature began earmarking grant money for county sheriffs, Thompson said.
“The language said it would be for education about and enforcement of Michigan’s medical marijuana act, but you can see what that turned into,” he said. In the first year, four counties spent $116,000, state records show.
This year, the grant money grew tenfold, said State Representative Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor. The Macomb County Sheriff is allowed up to $254,125, and the Wayne County Sheriff got $473,256, Irwin said.
The grants could expand dramatically again next year because LARA now has a whopping $31 million in its medical-marijuana fund, mainly from fees paid for ID cards by nearly 200,000 Michiganders, who were either approved to use medical marijuana or approved to be caregivers and provide medical marijuana to others.
The fee revenue this year flows in at nearly $9 million a year, $3 million more than the cost to administer the program, Irwin said.
Funneling fresh windfalls to law enforcement could mean more raids of dispensaries, home growing operations and other medical-marijuana sites, Irwin said.
Michigan is one of only two states that allows medical marijuana but doesn’t allow dispensaries, said Karen O’Keefe, a lawyer who is director of state policies for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Marijuana Policy Project.
“The big problem in Michigan is that the Legislature just has not updated the law” to allow dispensaries, O’Keefe said.
“It just does not make sense that you tell people, your only legal option is to plant a seed and wait four to five months” for it to grow the plant, said O’Keefe, in Grosse Pointe Woods last week to visit her parents.
Law-enforcement leaders have lobbied to block bills in Lansing that would’ve allowed and regulated dispensaries. This fall’s lame-duck session of the state Legislature could change that, said State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge.
“Right now, we have a package of bills that would do that, and in a way that would be acceptable to police, acceptable to the cities and townships, and acceptable I think to most of the patients,” said Jones, a former sheriff of Eaton County and chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
“The only people who oppose this are the ones who are profiting greatly” by hiding criminal enterprises behind the cover of Michigan’s medical marijuana law, he said. In the meantime, police must keep the pressure on those who’ve turned dispensaries into dens of illegal drug dealing, he said.
At the Ferndale City Council meeting late last month, another speaker who opposed accepting the county’s grant was former Ferndale mayor Craig Covey, a strong supporter of fully legalized marijuana. Covey is running in November against Bouchard for Oakland County Sheriff.
“So the money that’s coming back to Ferndale (as a grant to police) is coming from people with glaucoma, people with pain conditions, people who are legal patients using medical marijuana, and it’s being used to shut down compassion clubs and dispensaries,” Covey told the city council.
Standing nearby, Ferndale police Chief Timothy Collins already was counting on having an extra $5,000 in his budget.
“This is simply a vehicle for the city to be reimbursed for some of our overtime. Royal Oak accepted it two weeks ago,” Collins told the city council.
After a short debate, the council voted 3-1 to rescind its previous vote. The grant had been rejected. “Thank you, Ferndale!” shouted Young, as she and others applauded. But moments earlier, the audience heard Councilman Dan Martin’s dire assessment of the vote: “I understand that this is a symbolic stance — the county’s going to do what it’s going to do.”
Bill Laitner , Detroit Free Press 10:39 p.m. EDT August 6, 2016