How much influence should deep-pocketed cannabis companies have over state laws that affect their profits? That’s a question that’s still open for debate, including a current controversy over limiting medical marijuana caregivers. A move by corporate marijuana lobbyists in Michigan could test the limits of such influence.
A small but well funded group of corporate lobbyists is working to tighten caregiver restrictions, require expensive testing, and restrict home cultivation.
You see, the big weed companies are effectively trying to limit their competition by reducing home cultivation for patients.
Medical marijuana patients and advocates have long feared just such a nightmare scenario under adult-use legalization. What seemed like paranoia now seems well founded.
Profits vs. Patients: This One’s Been A Long Time Coming
“The first shots were fired Tuesday in a long-brewing policy war surrounding the Michigan marijuana industry,” MLive.com reports.
A package of bipartisan bills unveiled Tuesday, Sept. 14, would reduce the number of patients allowed per caregiver from five to all the way down to one, beginning March 21, 2022.
Patient advocates speculate that well-funded Cannabis corporations are likely greasing the skids in the Legislature through cleverly applied campaign contributions. That’s how such an “industry-friendly” bill has bipartisan support, they reason, even though it’s unfriendly to sick folks.
Michigan Bill Would Eviscerate Caregivers’ Plant, Flower Limits
Michigan caregivers operate under a 12-plant-per-patient limit. By reducing the number of patients from five to one, this bill would scale down the maximum amount a caregiver could grow at one time from 60 to 12 plants. (Caregivers, who are themselves patients, can grow an additional 12 plants for their personal use.)
The current harvested marijuana flower limits caregivers could keep on hand would dip from 15 ounces down to just five.
For months, caregivers have been expecting this battle with large marijuana businesses. After all, those businesses claim caregivers are responsible for the state’s enormous black market.
Marijuana pioneers argue legitimate caregivers, of whom there are plenty, aren’t to blame. The problem, they say, lies with unscrupulous operators using caregiver status to cover questionable activity.
Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association Going After Medical Caregivers
One of the biggest proponents for curtailing the current caregiver system is the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association. The industry group represents some of the industry’s largest financial interests, and if that sounds like deep pockets, then you’re on the right track.
The MCMA released a group-funded study in June. That very study claimed nearly two-thirds of all marijuana sales in the state, nearly $3.2 billion worth, occurred outside the “licensed market.”
The proposed legislation creates a new license type. This new type, “specialty medical grower,” would operate in line with the licensed market. Specialty medical growers would pay $500 application fees and have their Cannabis undergo safety compliance testing.
“Michigan’s unregulated cannabis market poses an immediate threat to the health of all Michiganders,” claimed MCMA Chair Shelly Edgerton. “[A]nd the Michigan Cannabis Safety Act updates outdated laws to help ensure all Michiganders have access to tested, tracked and labeled cannabis products.”
‘They’re Not Paying Taxes’
Edgerton, between 2016 and 2019, previously worked as the director of Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. That’s the office which, you guessed it, oversees the state Marijuana Regulatory Agency.
During her tenure, the agency had in place exceptions encouraging caregivers to sell their excess marijuana to the burgeoning and undersupplied licensed market as it was ramping up. But the agency soon found medical caregivers unneeded. The agency completely phased them out of the licensed market by September 2020.
But one factor is working in patients’ favor. That factor is, it was a voter ballot initiative which created the medical caregiver classification in 2008. What that means, according to Michigan law, is that changes to the current system would require a 75% super-majority vote.
“It’s not tested,” Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association Director Steve Linder said earlier this year. “We don’t know where it’s grown, we don’t know who’s growing it. People are not employing, they’re not investing in infrastructure, they’re not paying taxes. So, we have to get at the unregulated supply and that law needs to be passed. And we’re going to lead the charge.”
Linder previously worked as a Republican lobbyist in Lansing. Then marijuana industry figures named him director of the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association.
Medical Caregivers Defend Themselves
Medical Cannabis advocates and patient supporters argue black market issues are not due to law-abiding medical caregivers.
“There is no good reason to create any further restriction or burdens on the current caregiver system,” said legalization pioneer Jamie Lowell. Lowell is director of social responsibility and advocacy at the Botanical Company, a Cannabis retailer based in Lansing. “There is no health or other issues warranting any prohibitive changes to caregivers,” he said.
“None of these amendments were a result of a reasonable process that sought input from important stakeholders. Lowell said. “It seems as if it is common knowledge in Lansing that Steve Linder and the (Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association) are behind this.”
“If so, it would make sense and be consistent with their known intention to hurt the caregiver system. I believe, out of the ignorant assumption that it will benefit them.”
Industry Hides Behind Consumer Safety Claims
“There should be no changes to the current caregiver plant allowance, regardless of the addition of the specialty grower license type,” said Rick Thompson, a caregiver supporter. Thompson, a longtime activist, is director of Michigan NORML.
Thompson called the proposed legislation a “smoke-and-mirrors game.” He added its entire intent is reducing the competition from medical caregivers whilst hiding behind respectable claims of improved consumer safety.
Early this summer, activists launched an online boycott to support #NOCHANGES to Michigan’s caregiver laws, reports Michigan Advance. Then hundreds of Cannabis companies responded by pledging support for medical marijuana caregivers.
Cannabis retailers and consumers have boycotted MCMA members, including Skymint, LivWell, Common Citizen and High Life Farms, and other brands affiliated with the group’s members.
The controversy also prompted Pleasantrees CEO and founder Randy Buchman to resign as MCMA’s president. Shelly Edgerton, the aforementioned former state licensing and regulatory affairs director with the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, stepped in from a position at LivWell to replace him.
Attacking Home Cultivation
The public backlash prompted MCMA to remove contact information and individual members from the website. The industry group also elected a new board chair to help with public relations, said Michigan NORML’s Thompson.
Thompson has helped promote the recent boycott online. He believes Linder and the MCMA are coming after caregivers’ and residents’ home cultivation rights.
“He’s been a problem for the cannabis industry for a while,” Thompson said. “They’ve talked about slimming the market for quite some time, meaning less competition to their businesses and fewer licenses issued. But it also means attacking the unregulated market and home cultivation by patients, caregivers and by every adult in Michigan over the age of 21.”