Medical Pot Sellers Disappointed By Ban On Dispensaries

At 3rd Coast Compassion Center in Ypsilanti -- one of an estimated 100 medical marijuana dispensaries in Michigan -- it was business as usual Friday despite a court ruling that could be the death knell for such shops.

"We're still trying to figure out what the decision means," said Jamie Lowell, co-owner of 3rd Coast.

Nearby, medical marijuana users like Marchell Bauer, 56, of Wayne milled about, viewing and sniffing merchandise with names such as Moonshine Haze and Tangerine Trainwreck -- each specially priced this week, according to the club's Facebook site, for "donations" of $10 to $15 a gram.

"Ultimately, we're a private club," not a public store, Lowell said. Still, he was unsure Friday whether he could stay in business.

In a decision expected to affect tens of thousands of medical marijuana users across Michigan, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that dispensaries can't sell pot, except within tight limitations spelled out in the state medical marijuana act.

For state-registered users like Bauer, who said she suffers from chronic pain related to spinal surgery and glaucoma, the ruling means access to pot is likely to narrow.

Many longtime marijuana activists and their defense attorneys said the ruling appeared to spell the end of dispensaries.

"I did read the opinion and it's not pretty, but I was sort of expecting this," said Tim Beck of Detroit, a retired health insurance executive who helped write the ballot proposal that voters approved in 2008.

"What we said originally in the plain language of the act was that the only way a person could get medical marijuana was by either growing their own or getting it from a caregiver" -- an approved provider who is tied to just five patients on the state registry, Beck said.

"We thought the word 'dispensary' was just too dangerous and would cause us to lose at the polls," he said.

Echoing that were key defense attorneys for the medical marijuana community.

"A lot of cases have been stayed in circuit courts around the state, waiting for this decision," said Grosse Pointe Park criminal defense attorney Paul Tylenda.

"Now, honestly, this isn't the help that these clients were looking for," Tylenda said. He represents four clients charged with operating illegal dispensaries, two in Oakland County and two outstate, he said Friday.

According to the ruling, the only legal sales of medical marijuana in Michigan are those specifically allowed in the state act. It states that as many as five state-approved users may register with a single state-approved caregiver, who then becomes a long-term provider of the drug -- but only to those five users.

The ruling was hailed by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who said it showed that the state act passed by voters in 2008 is "not an open door to unrestricted retail marijuana sales."

"Dispensaries will have to close their doors," Schette said in a statement. Still, some supporters of medical marijuana held out cautious hope that dispensaries, in some form, could continue to operate.

The act that Michigan voters approved by a 63% margin did not include the words "sale" or "dispensary." Despite that, hundreds of retail outlets for medical marijuana quickly sprang up across the state. As police and prosecutors in some counties began raiding the outlets, some began calling themselves clubs, requiring membership fees and keeping doors locked to strangers.

In 2011, some began closing their doors when the state Appeals Court decided against dispensaries, ruling on the same Isabella County case whose final decision came Friday from the state Supreme Court, said medical marijuana advocate Rick Thompson of Flint.

Friday's decision "will probably cause another wave of closings, but I don't think this is the end of dispensaries in Michigan," said Thompson, editor of the online magazine Compassion Chronicles, aimed at Michigan's medical marijuana users.

Dispensaries might survive if they manage to stick closely to the business model allowed in the act -- one caregiver tied to five users, Thompson said.

Friday's ruling involved what the justices termed a "membership organization," called Compassionate Apothecary in Mt. Pleasant. Only state-registered caregivers and patients could join, according to court documents.

Members of Compassionate Apothecary rented lockers from the owners, whenever they'd grown more marijuana than they needed, and the two owners provided what amounted to a type of dispensary, with a display room and a station for weighing and packaging the drug. The Compassionate Apothecary owners would then take a service fee for each transaction, according to court documents.

The owners of the dispensary won their case in Isabella County Circuit Court but lost in the state Court of Appeals in 2011 and again lost, on slightly different grounds, in Friday's ruling.

Still, both rulings mean that Compassionate Apothecary is defunct and its owners face felony drug charges, attorneys familiar with the case said. Fear of a similar outcome loomed in Ypsilanti at 3rd Coast Compassion Center, where the co-owner Lowell said he was not positive he could stay open without fear of prosecution.

"We took an empty building, fixed it up and hired four employees to work here, all to help people with their health care choices," he said.

"People are meeting this weekend, lawyers are in correspondence with this community, but we really need to figure something out. You can't just cut patients off from their health care," Lowell said.

A bill pending in the state Legislature would allow dispensaries in Michigan.

"Now it's really time for all of us to get behind that," Lowell said.

Contact Bill Laitner: 313-223-4485 or