Medical pot regulations face pushback in Senate hearing, military vet tossed in heated exchange

December 8, 2015:

LANSING, MI — Medical marijuana activists spoke out Tuesday against a proposal to license and tax dispensaries, arguing the legislation would drive up patient prices and force out registered caregivers.

A lengthy debate in the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee ended without any voting but was marked by drama, including the removal of an activist during a heated exchange.

Dakota Serna of Kalamazoo told lawmakers he was a military veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, and he credited medical marijuana with saving his life.

But Serna called the proposed legislation “a disgrace to the medical marijuana community,” including veterans like himself and people on disability who are struggling to survive.

“This bill not only takes more money from them — it taxes their medicine — you’re going to give some of that money to the sheriffs’ departments,” he said. “The jackboots, the thugs that come into people’s homes and kick in their door —”

With that, Committee Chairman Rick Jones gaveled down Serna. Both men raised their voices as they attempted to talk over each other — “No you listen sir,” Serna said at one point — and a Senate sergeant-at-arms eventually escorted him from the hearing.

“I will not have that kind of language here,” said Jones, R-Grand Ledge, a former sheriff. “You have to be civil. I honor your service to our country, but enough is enough. I will not have you calling people names.”

Other activists used more delicate language but echoed Serna’s cost concerns with pending modifications to House Bill 4209, which would create a regulatory framework for medical marijuana growers, processors, distributors, product testers and storefront “provisioning center” dispensaries.

The legislation, as approved by the House in October, would allow local communities to decide whether they want to allow marijuana businesses. Dispensaries would be taxed at 3 percent, with revenue going to municipalities, counties, sheriffs and the state’s general fund.

A proposed change in the Senate committee would create a three-tiered licensing system for growers, distributors and dispensaries by prohibiting one owner from operating multiple business types.

“Pfizer doesn’t make drugs and then go down and open a store and sell them,” Jones said, describing rationale for the tiered system.

“I had been told by all the groups prior to this that we don’t want monopolies, we don’t want some wealthy person to come in and buy up everything and control everything. That’s what we’re attempting to do.”

But critics say Michigan’s tiered system for alcohol distribution is a better comparison than the pharmaceutical industry, and they fear the modified proposal will ultimately drive up prices by creating lucrative business opportunities for middle men.

Alcohol distribution is akin to a monopoly in Michigan, according to Robin Schneider, legislative liaison for the National Patient Rights Association, which had supported earlier versions of the dispensary bill but is now opposed.

“I haven’t heard anything good about that model, so I don’t know why we would want to do it again with a new substance, especially when this is medicine and we’re supposed to be concerned about patient care and patients’ needs,” Schneider said after the hearing.

Jones, speaking with reporters after hearing, sought to dispel what he called “rumors” that beer and wine wholesalers are angling to distribute medical marijuana, and he said the law enforcement community supports the proposed licensing system.

“Police want everything very clean, just like Canada,” Jones said, referencing the medical marijuana industry there.

“What we have right now is totally illegal. You have caregivers with overages throwing the stuff in their trunk, taking it down to the dispensary and selling it. We have homes where they’re processing the stuff into oils, and we’ve had explosions. It’s just not safe.”

The legislation will not end the patient-caregiver system, which was approved by Michigan voters in 2008, but activists are concerned the regulations would preclude registered caregivers from fully participating in the new medical marijuana industry.

Michigan’s voter-approved law does not address dispensaries, and the state Supreme Court has empowered county prosecutors to shut them down as a public nuisance. But dispensaries have continued to operate in some communities at the leisure of local officials.

Medical dispensary legislation passed the House last session but ultimately died in the Senate, where it faced strong opposition from police, prosecutors and sheriffs. Sponsoring Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, reintroduced the bill earlier this year and has attempted to engage the law enforcement community in the legislative process.

“I’m confident that working together, we can craft a solution that allows for safe access and respects the will of those who voted in favor of medical marijuana,” Callton said Tuesday in committee testimony.

Other House-approved bills would allow for non-smokable forms of the drug and create a seed-to-sale tracking system for marijuana plants. Jones also intends to link the packages to bills that would let landlords ban medical marijuana in rental units and create a police pilot program for roadside saliva testing in suspected drugged driving cases.

Jones, working to allay lingering concerns of law enforcement groups, is hoping they end up “neutral” on the final package, which he would consider a win.

But activists, in their testimony on Tuesday, said the legislative process has focused too little on the patients that the medical marijuana law is intended to benefit.

The bill package “creates far more categories of criminal behavior for medical marijuana patients than it creates protections and rights,” said Rick Thompson of Michigan NORML. “Remember that medical marijuana patients pay the state for the privilege to participate in the program, and yet you’re creating vast degrees of criminality for people who pay for the opportunity to participate.”

Jones had planned to call a committee vote on the bills Tuesday, but two members had to leave early to attend a funeral. He may schedule another hearing later this week or next, which is the last scheduled session week of 2015.

Jonathan Oosting is a Capitol reporter for MLive Media Group. Email him, find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

By Jonathan Oosting | joosting@mlive.com

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on December 08, 2015 at 6:04 PM, updated December 08, 2015 at 9:18 PM

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