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Published: Friday, 12/5/2008

Medical marijuana officially legit in Michigan


DETROIT - Medical marijuana became legal in Michigan yesterday, a month after being overwhelmingly approved by voters.

But patients looking to relieve pain, nausea, and loss of appetite don't have the go-ahead to light up just yet.

The new law allows patients with cancer, HIV, AIDS, glaucoma, and other diseases to use marijuana to relieve their symptoms on a doctor's recommendation.

Qualifying patients can register with the state and receive ID cards allowing them to legally acquire, possess, grow, transport, and use a limited amount - no more than 2.5 ounces and 12 plants - of marijuana.

They also can designate a primary caregiver to receive similar protection.

But those cards won't be issued until sometime next year, after the Department of Community Health introduces guidelines addressing how applications will be handled, what fees will be charged, and other issues.

The rules must be finalized by April 4.

Until then, anyone possessing marijuana - even patients who later could qualify for the program - can be arrested and prosecuted, though the law allows patients to use a medical-justification defense at trial.

"We have this void where this takes effect now, but there are no rules, regulations, or guidance for the people who want to use it or the people who enforce the laws," said Jim Valentine, chief of police in Lowell and first vice president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Until the cards are issued, Chief Valentine said, officers will continue to arrest marijuana users in his western Michigan community of about 4,000, even if they claim to be patients.

He said he'll let the prosecutor decide whether to pursue charges.

"I think we would be doing things backwards if we based our actions on what might happen at the court level," Chief Velentine said.

Michigan is the 13th state to allow medicinal use of marijuana, though the state's law doesn't address how patients can obtain it.

It's illegal to sell marijuana, even to registered patients.

As in every state with a program except California, there won't be legal "pot shops" to supply the drug to patients.

Federal law also bans marijuana for any purpose, but federal agencies say they rarely target small-scale users.

If any aspect of Michigan's program becomes an issue, there are ways to change the law, said John D. Pirich, a Lansing attorney who has worked on past ballot initiatives.

The state Legislature can modify the law with a three-fourths majority in both houses, the courts could intervene, or a second ballot initiative could modify the first, Mr. Pirich said.

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