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Caregivers say the lobbying efforts come down to a lack of understanding and greed.
By Marla R. Miller, Michigan Advance
Medical marijuana caregiver Ryan Bringold has been involved in Michigan’s grassroots efforts to legalize cannabis for years.
But as larger licensed recreational and medical cannabis grow facilities and provisioning centers crop up across Michigan, caregivers like Bringold who helped legalize marijuana feel they are being pushed out. A small group of corporate activists want to tighten state restrictions for medical caregivers and patients. The goal: Cut plant counts, require product testing and reduce homegrown cultivation.
Bringold, 49, who lives in Waterford, is organizing the Caregivers Rights Rally Wednesday at the state Capitol in Lansing, as the legislature is back in session.
The goal of the rally is to unite caregivers and speak out against proposals to change the state’s 2008 Medical Marihuana Act provisions. He also helped coordinate a Michigan NORML presence at the 2019 Labor Day Mackinac Bridge Walk, and this year the group walked to raise awareness for caregivers’ rights.
“We didn’t pay attention,” Bringold said. “We watched our ability to be in the retail market fade away. We watched other restrictions, but no one was doing anything. We need to come together and protect what the Michigan voters voted for or the retail market is going to dictate the cannabis supply.”
As of September 1, there were 249,870 active patients (292 are minors) and 30,227 active caregivers, according to the state Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA). The MRA is not pushing for any changes to the current caregiver program and spokesperson David Harns declined further comment.
The Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association (MCMA), a trade group that represents some of the largest cannabis companies in Michigan, is reportedly behind the effort to tighten regulations for medical marijuana caregivers, patients and residents who grow their own cannabis.
According to Bringold and other cannabis activists, some legislative proposals being discussed include:
- Reduce caregiver plant allowances from 60 to 10 and a 75 percent reduction in patient plant allowances (from 12 to three).
- Require caregivers to test all cannabis prior to distribution and that all 30,000 caregiver gardens be tracked by the state’s METRC computer database.
- Restrict outdoor grow facilities and homegrown cannabis.
- Prohibit caregiver member markets where caregivers can sell surplus product to fellow caregivers and patients.
The MCMA formed in 2019 and has since removed member companies from its website. The website states the association represents “nearly half of all multiple Class C cannabis licenses in Michigan.” Steve Linder, who leads the organization, is a longtime Lansing-based Republican consultant and lobbyist who has targeted the unregulated supply and wants tighter industry regulations for medical caregivers.
Linder declined comment for this story. But in May, he told Grown In, a cannabis industry newsletter, “The first law I would want to pass is a law that would start to get at the non-licensed supply out in the marketplace. It’s not tested. 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.”
The MCMA website also explains the organization wants to rein in Michigan’s illicit cannabis market with the goal of promoting safety, transparency and accountability.
“MCMA supports working together to end the avalanche of untested and potentially unsafe cannabis flooding the Michigan market,” the website states. “However, large quantities of untested, illicit cannabis continue to flood the market, posing a significant threat to patient and consumer safety and circumventing rules and taxes.”
Linder’s reported attempts to shop bills among lawmakers have created a buzz in Lansing and spread across the state’s cannabis industry. Early this summer, activists launched an online boycott to support #NOCHANGES to Michigan’s caregiver laws. Hundreds of cannabis companies responded, including several businesses in greater Lansing, by pledging support for caregivers.
Cannabis retailers and consumers have boycotted MCMA members, including Skymint, LivWell, Common Citizen and High Life Farms in Lansing, and brands affiliated with the group’s members. Calls and emails to the MCMA and several corporate cannabis companies, including High Life Farms, Skymint Brands and LivWell, were not returned for this story.
The controversy also prompted Pleasantrees CEO and founder Randy Buchman to resign as MCMA’s president. LivWell executive Shelly Edgerton, the former state licensing and regulatory affairs director who helped create the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency, stepped in to replace him.
The public backlash prompted MCMA to remove contact information and individual members from the website and elect a new board chair to help with public relations, said Rick Thompson, executive director of Michigan NORML.
Thompson has promoted the recent boycott online and believes Linder and MCMA are coming after caregivers’ and residents’ 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.”
Caregivers early advocates, helped drive cannabis legalization
Medical marijuana caregivers are among the early activists who spearheaded the grassroots efforts behind Michigan’s voter-approved Proposal 1 of 2008 and Proposal 1 of 2018 ballot initiatives, Bringold notes. The former legalized medical use of marijuana and, a decade later, the latter made it legal for adults over age 21 to grow, possess and use cannabis for recreational purposes.
“Some of these multiple location retailers, they know exactly what they are doing,” Bringold said. “They want all the money. We’ve seen it in the coke industry, the potato chip industry, the car industry… What they are doing is shutting us down. We created the industry. None of these people were knocking on doors doing the legwork, where were those guys then. None of them did any of it, and yet now they are in the power position to eliminate me. This is our chance to keep something of what we helped to create.”
Caregivers say the lobbying efforts come down to a lack of understanding and greed. Corporate cannabis companies want to push the little guy out, using straw man arguments around safety and surplus product that fuels a black market, Bringold said.
“For the licensing process to become a retail medical marijuana facility, you had to show $1 million of assets, obtained legally over time; that right there put most of the caregivers in the state of Michigan out of that loop,” Bringold said. “We’re just regular folks with 9-to-5 jobs, who happen to enjoy cannabis, and we’re patients and caregivers. We were pushed right out of that system. We never had the opportunity to get in. There are a few who got in who are good people.”
Bringold has watched the law’s language change as larger grow facilities, dispensaries and medical marijuana provisioning centers opened shop. Initially, caregivers were allowed to supply dispensaries as they got up and running, but now they are excluded from the retail marketplace.
In addition, the Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act required grower and processor facility licensees to have at least two years’ experience as a caregiver, or employ someone with caregiving experience. That rule ends on December 31.
“It just seems like we were pushed aside and found to be useless,” Bringold said. “We are a very close-knit community in the cannabis community… Everybody was flying a victory flag and forgot there was a whole group who never liked cannabis, never cared about cannabis. Some ran for city and township boards and ran for state positions.”
Now, caregiver marketplaces are in jeopardy, places like Vehicle City Social and Genesee County Compassion Club in Flint. These are member organizations where caregivers can sell surplus products to other caregivers and patients.
“You pay a membership fee and become a member, and as a caregiver-grower, you can set up a table and other caregivers can come in and buy your product to supply medicine to patients in between grows,” Bringold said. “It’s like any other crop. Crops do fail… Not every time is a success. Those places still allow people to get medicine for a reasonable cost.”
Caregivers say they’re ‘in it to help people’
Cliff and Bonnie Demos, caregivers in northern Michigan’s Lake County, moved to Michigan from Wisconsin to treat Bonnie’s health conditions after medical marijuana became legal. They grow outdoors—the way nature intended—and Cliff Demos argues homegrown marijuana is safer than cannabis cultivated in a large indoor grow facility.
Cliff Demos, 75, said the corporate grows are “in this for the money—they’re not in it to see people get healed or to see people be relieved from pain.” They’re not mindful of Michigan’s climate or growing season, but rather they are trying to fast-grow plants for money, he said.
Demos plans to attend the rally and said the caregiver model works. Many caregivers and patients have established relationships over the last decade, and the Demoses work with patients to improve their health. They’ve developed different delivery methods, including balms, oils and cannabis-infused food.
“When we get patients, they are usually sick, and it’s up to us to help them any way we can,” Demos said. “We are able to help them and make things better for them. It just plain flat-out works. All I know is what we do and that’s take care of people, treat them with respect and give them what will help them.”
Tighter regulations could jeopardize patient-caregiver relationships statewide, even threatening the entire program, Bringold said. Cutting the number of patient and plant allowances for caregivers will drive more patients to licensed dispensaries, where patients aren’t allowed to touch, smell, or sample their medicine.
Having a medical marijuana card keeps the program strong and offers other benefits for patients, like reduced taxes at provisioning centers and more protections while driving with cannabis in the car, Bringold said.
“They don’t feel that citizens should be growing,” Bringold said of those targeting caregivers. “There is a place now to buy it. People who think like that don’t know anything about cannabis. They don’t understand the patient-caregiver relationship. Cannabis is a unique plant in that every plant strain can affect you differently.”
MCMA wants testing, crackdown on illicit supply
Under current law, licensed caregivers can grow up to 12 marijuana plants per patient for up to five different patients. Each caregiver can have a maximum 72 plants if the caregiver is also a registered medical marijuana patient.
Unlike licensed retailers, caregivers don’t have to submit a formal business plan to state officials. They have reduced licensing fees, and their harvested plants and products don’t have to be tested at a safety compliance laboratory.
Linder and others want caregiver products to be tested for pesticides, heavy metals and other potentially harmful additives like cannabis sold at dispensaries and provisioning centers. But advocates argue that people never hear media reports of anyone dying or getting sick or injured from caregiver-grown medical marijuana.
“If you don’t hear of people getting sick from caregiver cannabis, kids going to the hospital, then it’s not happening,” Thompson said. “We’ve had 12 years of caregiver cannabis; there is no danger or health hazard coming from caregiver cannabis.”
Bringold said the caregiver community is tight-knit and word gets around about unethical practices. The caregivers who weren’t successful are long gone. He’s a 100 percent organic grower who doesn’t use chemicals to control bugs.
“There is no real danger from cannabis even if it’s shitty cannabis,” Bringold said. “If you are doing something that might be unethical, if you used too much fertilizer, if it’s got spider mites in it, that gets around pretty quickly. We’re self-regulating and we’ve been self-regulating for 10 years.”
Thompson said state marijuana regulators haven’t expressed interest in changing the caregiver program. In an interview with Four20 Post, MRA Director Andrew Brisbo said the state doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to require mandatory product testing for 30,000 caregivers.
The state would have to expand capacity at its safety compliance laboratories or open more. There have been 17 marijuana regulatory licenses issued, but there are currently 13 testing facilities in the state that are open and serving the public, Thompson said.
Caregivers, corporate grows can coexist
In July, Michigan’s cannabis market increased 56 percent from a year ago, boasting a record $171.1 million in revenue.
“There is plenty of growth in the market,” Thompson said. “We don’t need to start making changes to some of the voter-directed initiatives we passed in Michigan.”
As for eliminating the “gray” or black market, activists and caregivers say that will never go away. Thompson said that anyone operating in the cannabis space is breaking federal law. He also noted that other states with caregiver programs have retracted the freedoms given to caregivers over time.
“When you create laws that are unworkable, you create criminality, and that’s why we need to have more input into the ways laws are crafted,” Thompson said. “They’re crafting laws that disadvantage people and that’s avoidable.”
In addition, activists are willing to address concerns that some people are taking advantage of an unregulated supply.
“If you get rid of the caregiver system, you make it a black market,” Bringold said. “We’ve all heard about the warehouse caregiver growing over 72 plants, that guy should be in trouble… We expect caregivers to follow the law that was voted on.”
Several grow facilities and provisioning centers have opened in rural areas like Lake, Mecosta and Osceola counties. Lake County has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, and many medical marijuana patients can’t afford the higher prices at provisioning centers, Demos said.
“These big corporations just gotta keep taking from the small guy,” Demos said. “You see that with anything that becomes new. Big corporations jump on it.”
The Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, a Lansing-based member organization serving over 300 cannabis businesses, doesn’t support efforts to change the current caregiver-patient model.
“Our members, many of them used to be caregivers and have come from the caregiver program into the retail market,” said Executive Director Robin Schneider. “The agreement was never that we were going to take any rights away from the patients or caregivers.”
Schneider doesn’t foresee the lobbying efforts gaining momentum. The caregiver law would require a 3/4 majority vote to change since it was part of a voter-initiated ballot proposal. She also noted that patients and caregivers are able to test cannabis on their own at the state’s safety compliance facilities.
“We do understand why the caregivers are having the rally at the Capitol and encourage them to stay engaged in the political process moving forward,” Schneider said. “It would take a supermajority [of lawmakers] to pass, and members of both parties have expressed this is not a fight they are interested in taking up.”
Thompson disagrees and believes the fight to roll back rights for caregivers and home growers isn’t going to fizzle out.
“If I didn’t think it was a threat,” he said, “I wouldn’t be making such a big deal about it.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.