My Family Ran A Michigan Dispensary Until The State Closed Us Down

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I was eight months pregnant when my husband called me to tell me he wanted to open his own medical marijuana dispensary in our home state of Michigan. It was nearly midnight, and it was one of the most terrifying phone calls of my life. There is so much risk in medical marijuana right now; the Feds don’t respect state laws and most states don’t even know what’s legal and what’s not. Still, my husband spoke with a sense of certainty that I couldn’t oppose.

“I want to do it right,” he said. “I don’t want to have to fight to give meds to people who need them, and I don’t want to squeeze my growers.”

He’d been “volunteering” at the same  dispensary for months, and I trusted that he knew what he was doing. We emptied our tiny savings account and scraped together every spare cent over the next two and a half months. By the time our beautiful son was a month old, we were getting ready to open the dispensary in a small office space.

Quan Yin, the boddihstava of compassion

Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion

I’m proud to say that our business was grandma-friendly; we even had a few grandmas as clients. In place of neon pot-leafs and strain posters, we had a painting and statue of Kuan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion in our waiting room. We called it kid-friendly too, though at first there wasn’t much for a kid to do but sit in a chair. Over the months, toys and kid’s books built up in the waiting room. (No kids were allowed in the room with the medicine).

My husband was an excellent bud tender; he prided himself on finding the perfect strain for a person’s needs despite how the strains in stock continually rotated. He can identify strains (or at least some lineages) from bud smell alone. He was not, however, an excellent business person.

He wanted to help, and medical marijuana patients in economically depressed Michigan are often folks without jobs, insurance, or disposable income. Instead of holding fast to his prices, or doing what many other shops did by setting a price ceiling for purchasing, he chose to operate as a non-profit in the truest sense of the word despite his business being an LLC.

In the six months we were open, we gave away over $45,000 in free or discounted medication. Roughly $1,500 of that was spent to help patients pay their doctor’s fees and state fees for medical marijuana certifications at an outside clinic. During that time, my husband did not draw a single paycheck. My meager salary as a writer covered all of our household expenses, and the shop managed to pay its own rent and insurance.

We met some of the most amazing and compassionate people during those months. We saw someone in a rush on lunch let a disabled patient go first because they were unable to sit comfortably. I witnessed a room full of grown men ignore another adult losing control of his bladder in the waiting room and continue talking to him as though nothing had happened. I saw strangers hug and share medicine.

Unfortunately, the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act of 2008 was not thorough enough in some respects and not clear enough in others. Dispensaries were not overtly allowed in the language of the law. Combine that with an Executive branch bent on ignoring the mandate of the people (63% is a pretty clear win), a hypocritical Attorney General with a chip on his shoulder about cannabis, and you find yourself in Michigan, 2013.

In February, 2013, the Michigan Supreme Court made a ruling regarding a civil case and a particular model for medical marijuana retail businesses. The Attorney General and county prosecutors have since taken it upon themselves to willfully misinterpret that ruling and use it as an excuse to shut down medical marijuana dispensaries.

At first, our small operation seemed to go unnoticed, and we continued to provide safe access to a closed group of state-certified patients with whom we had an established relationship. Then, one day, my husband came home with a letter in his hand and tears in his eyes.

We were not raided; we were lucky. We simply received  a visit from two officers who told us to shut down or they’d be back to strip the shop down to the walls and arrest whoever was present. They handed my husband a photocopied form letter stating all dispensaries operated outside the scope of the MMMA, and that we had to close or face charges. They couldn’t even be bothered to use an actual piece of stationery from the prosecutor’s office, or to put our names or the name of the business on the letter.

Other businesses who received the letter before us stayed open, and they received the full attention of local and state law enforcement in the weeks prior to us receiving our letter. They had their doors kicked in and their owners and employees arrested and charged with drug felonies. Over-zealous law enforcement even added cocaine charges to one shop owner’s list because of the powered sugar from medical edibles (or “medibles”, as they are commonly called) they found on the display case in his shop.

Although we wanted to stay open and to help fight, our family had to come first. We can’t be activists from prison. We also can’t be parents from prison. Our son deserves a full, functional family.

We closed.

Our motto was: “Be thou for the people,” which my alchemist husband took very seriously. Closing our shop didn’t mean that we lost money, not really. It meant that our landlord lost a source of income, our growers, bakers, and blowers lost a major source of income,  and our patients lost their safe access. Some were able to find caregivers who could offer them prices that worked, some are still struggling to source medicine or simply can not get medical marijuana anymore because they can’t pay for it. He cried for the patients with terminal conditions who were depending on him to provide their medicine, for those with social anxiety for whom meeting a new caregiver was a terrifying impossibility.

While a few cities and counties in Michigan still have safe access for now, that isn’t true for the majority of the state. Some are fighting for a new dispensary bill, but it is months, if not years, from becoming law. For now, the broken system in Michigan remains broken, just like its economy.

“The broken system in Michigan remains broken, just like its economy.”

In the end, it is the poor, the truly disabled, the elderly, and the severely sick who are disproportionately affected by what is known in Michigan as “the McQueen ruling.” Those who may have been abusing the system are surely still doing so. Those internet-savvy enough will find caregivers eventually.  Those without money, technological know-how or access, or someone to guide them are left to deal with the black market or to do without.

In my opinion, fixing the grossly neglected and legally undermined medical marijuana law in Michigan is a waste of resources. Medical marijuana is a necessary first step in many states, especially those with populations that remain hostile to cannabis in general.

However, the uneducated and vehement opposition in Michigan has gutted our state’s act in a way that is dangerous to those most in need of medical marijuana. The ridiculous (and innately political) reaction to a wildly popular law makes it clear that only full legalization for all adults will adequately protect those who need access to medical marijuana.