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Opinion | Michigan lawmakers need to leave medical marijuana caregivers alone

Michigan lawmakers are considering legislation that proposes to force medical marijuana caregivers to operate under the same rules as licensed commercial growers. As former caregivers now operating a Class C licensed grow operation, we are here to tell you this won’t work.

Krista Beller, Tom Beller
Krista Beller is CEO and Tom Beller is COO of Real Leaf Solutions, a Class C cannabis grower in Kalkaska. (Courtesy photo)

When we were caregivers, we helped ailing cancer patients and people with chronic pain obtain medicine they needed to feel better. We supplied parents with specialized medicine so their kids could go more than a day without a seizure. Caregivers like us did this at great personal risk, because growing medical marijuana for patients back in 2009 – even with state approval – meant the possibility of being targeted by federal law enforcement officers who took a more hardline approach toward cannabis compared to their relatively ambivalent stance today.

To this day, caregivers continue to provide a niche service by growing and producing difficult-to-source products and offering them to patients at affordable rates. Specialty products like concentrated oils, tinctures and suppositories are few and far between on licensed dispensary shelves. When these medicines can be found in dispensaries, patients typically cannot afford to pay storefront prices for the quantities they need on a weekly or monthly basis. Caregivers fill this void.

The state’s largest corporate cannabis companies – the ones who joined together to form the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association – are trying to use their high-powered lobbyists to grow their market share by changing the law to eliminate caregivers altogether. Their proposed legislation was written entirely by their group without input from the rest of the licensed industry, or caregivers and the patients they serve. To them, creating laws that make it more difficult for caregivers to operate is good business regardless of what harm it causes to patients.

This corporate cannabis group wants caregivers to serve only one patient each. That’s absurd. There are currently about 30,000 caregivers serving 70,000 registered patients. So right away, more than half of the patients in this state would be cut off from their medicine. The big cannabis companies assume that will mean patients turning to their stores, but the reality is that caregivers will just go back underground.

That is a step backwards from what voters approved in 2008 with the state’s medical marijuana law. It’s also a major reversal of what lawmakers approved in 2016 when they created the licensed medical marijuana system. And, if this new law results in recriminalizing patients who are seeking affordable medicine, it will be the exact opposite of what the people of this state decided in 2018 when voters approved full legalization. Remember, ending the waste of law enforcement resources and stopping people from going to jail for cannabis was one of the primary arguments in favor of that campaign.

The corporate cannabis company’s bill would also put caregivers under the same regulatory structure as licensed businesses like ours. At face value, that might sound reasonable, but let’s look at the practical aspects. First, the state’s seed-to-sale tracking system already crashes regularly, and Marijuana Regulatory Agency staff are stretched thin as it is. Adding 30,000 caregivers to the mix will only compound these problems.

Placing caregivers under state regulation would also mean requiring their product to undergo the same testing standards as licensed companies. It already takes a long time for licensed companies like ours to receive their testing results, and there simply are not enough labs across the state to add caregivers to this system.

Corporate cannabis companies have also proposed allowing caregivers to supply to the licensed market for the low licensing fee of $500 per person, assuming their product passes testing. Unless the state plans to bring every cultivator license down from $50,000 per year to that same low level, that is simply unfair to those of us who put their life savings on the line for our businesses.

Then there’s the question of whether caregivers would be held to the same rules that licensed growers must currently meet. Will they be subject to the same audits and taxation rules as licensed companies? Is there even enough manpower to monitor and enforce these rules on caregivers?

As a licensed cannabis cultivator, we may have given up the caregiver title, but we remain ones at heart. They are the foundation of Michigan’s cannabis industry and are not the enemy of the licensed market. There may be ways to improve how caregivers and licensed businesses interact, but legislation written only by one small group without input from anyone else is not the answer.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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