The Magazine

Gone to Pot

The medical marijuana charade.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By MATT LABASH
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Southfield, Michigan

Gone to Pot

Photo Credit: Thomas Fluharty

It’s hard to recall the precise moment when I realized I’d been hoodwinked by my US Airways pilot. Instead of taking me to Detroit, as my ticket promised, it seemed he had deposited me on the set of Weeds, the Showtime program about a workaday upper-middle class mother who decides to become a pot dealer. 

That moment might have come after leaving the airport in my rental car, when I saw a clinic sign beckoning motorists to get an exam for their state-certified medical marijuana card. Or it might have come when I saw the multiple billboards for hydroponic gardening equipment (no, they’re not growing hothouse tomatoes here). Or maybe it was seeing the oversized highway sign heralding the season premiere of Weeds itself, the show that plunges you into California cannabis culture, from clandestine grow-rooms to “dispensaries”—the quasi-legal pot shops that one character on the show described as making Los Angeles like Amsterdam, except “you don’t have to visit the Anne Frank house and pretend to be all sad and s—.”

Then I opened Detroit’s alternative weekly Metro Times, which instead of being chock-full of ads for used futons and anonymous sex, as is the custom with such papers, was lousy with medical marijuana ads: for marijuana gardening academies; for pot doctors from places with names like Green Medicine (“No medical records? No problem.”); for the Medical Marijuana Extravaganja, a two-day jamboree of stand-up comics and horseshoe tournaments and centerfold contests which feature women like the one in the ad, who is holding a snake in one hand and an apple in the other, her ample gifts blossoming from a green bud bikini. You know, to pull in the chemo sufferers.

But the final dawning that I’d landed in the autumnal mists of a land called Honah Lee—as the poets Peter, Paul and Mary used to put it—probably came the day I went back to college. Not journalism school, mind you. What would be the point? Journalism—like making cars—is a dying industry around these parts. But there is a growth industry emerging in Michigan, the first one for decades: state-sanctioned pot dealing. And here in colorless, odorless Southfield, a white-bread suburb of Detroit, is one of the best places to learn how to do it, Med Grow Cannabis College.

Modeled partly on Oaksterdam University in Oakland, which became a weed-education hub after California legalized the medical use of marijuana in 1996, Med Grow is the brainchild of 24-year-old Nick Tennant. As Tennant’s auto-detailing business tanked in the Great Recession, Michigan followed California’s lead and became one of 14 states to legalize medical marijuana, with 63 percent of the vote in 2008. Technically, it’s still against federal law. Marijuana—even when it’s called medical—remains classified by the Feds as a forbidden Schedule 1 substance, meaning surly DEA agents can make trouble for its users. But the Obama Justice Department issued a 2009 memo directing U.S. attorneys not to target those “in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws” that permit the use of medical marijuana.

The state of Michigan now approves medical marijuana, but doesn’t provide it. So somebody needs to grow all this medicinal herb. The act allows a certified patient to grow up to 12 plants for himself, or to choose a certified caregiver who can grow for up to five patients (for a total of 60 plants, or 72, if the caregiver is also his own patient, as is often the case). And that’s why Med Grow is here—to teach people the ins and outs of the weed business, from growing it, to writing it off on their taxes. As they say in their mission statement—and you know weed has become serious business when a pot school has a mission statement—Med Grow is “dedicated to your success in the Medical Marijuana Industry, and your reputation is reliant upon it.”

Getting Rid of the Stigma

Med Grow’s campus is nothing more than a faceless address in an office park. It sits discreetly off 10 Mile Road, in a place where most business names camouflage what they do anyway, all packaged amidst crisp topiary in a building with tinted windows and space-age silver curvilinear trim, the way some architect thought the future would look before it became the present. Inside, however, it’s clear Med Grow is enjoying boom times. The lobby is adorned with framed stories from all those who’ve already visited the school, though it’s been open less than a year: Crain’s Detroit Business, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, Time, the New York Times. Competing for wall space are the exotically illustrated labels of Wet Betty and Bud Candy and VooDoo Juice nutrients and root boosters.

Arielle, the cute receptionist/office manager who takes people’s $595 for our condensed five-day course (the school also offers six-week, weekend, and even online plans), will freely tell you that she’ll soon grow plants for herself as a patient, which is necessary because, “My sheet says [I have] severe and chronic migraines, along with severe nausea and vomiting, and then, um, menstrual cramps. .  .  . My mom’s getting into it, too!” Mother and daughter hope to make edibles (pot brownies, cannabutter, the works). 

In an adjoining room, the 45 or so students line up to buy their textbook: Jorge Cervantes’s Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible, which covers all things weed-related, from aeroponics to zinc deficiency. Medical pot, however, is not for sale, and nobody’s allowed to smoke in the open. There is, however, a sealed-off “medicine room” in the back, where students who already have their cards can medicate themselves during breaks. One can smell a musky vegetative fragrance emanating from behind the whiteboards in the one classroom that serves the school. Open the walls up, and there are also three mylar-lined grow-rooms, with carbon-scrubbers, inline fans, metal halide and sodium lights, all of which help grow the medicine, which bears names like White Cheddar and McFrosty.

As I enter the classroom, I look for a place to plug in my laptop. The nearest outlet is in a locked room, which the school’s sales manager, who wears colorful Bonnaroo T-shirts and calls himself Cliff (nearly everyone I talk to uses fake names), opens for me. Cliff points to the outlet, near some dried bud on a shelf. “Just watch the medicine,” he cautions.

Silver-haired Cliff was a high-flying mortgage banker before the market collapsed. His ex-wife thinks his new job is a joke. “I tell her when she pays my bills, she can tell me how to earn my money,” he growls. Cliff’s a patient too—he smokes for pain he suffers from having once broken a hip. I ask him if he really smokes for his hip, or for fun. “For my hip, of course,” he says, permitting a grin. His injury must not be too debilitating. He’s playing in a baseball game that evening, but won’t smoke beforehand, because, “I don’t want any excuse if I mis-hit.” Still, he says, “It relieves chronic pain, doesn’t get rid of it—but takes your mind off it for a couple hours.” 

So does bourbon, I tell him. Not only can it make you forget your pain, both outer and inner, but some scientists even say it has cancer-killing antioxidants. Still, we don’t pretend it’s medicine. 

“I love drinkin’,” Cliff admits. But citing a referendum that was slated to be on the ballot in November and has since been killed, which would’ve permitted all residents of Detroit to legally possess an ounce of marijuana for personal use, he adds, “We just need to decriminalize it.” 

Sure, I say, jabbing. Because that’s exactly what a city with 15 percent unemployment that’s as chronically crime-ridden and dysfunctional as Detroit needs: more drugs. But legalization and decriminalization aren’t really where the action is at the moment—medicalizing marijuana is. I tell Cliff that what I’m most struck by is how the medical marijuana movement has euphemized the old glossary. “Users” are now “patients.” “Dealers” are “caregivers.” And the dope itself? “Medicine!” says Cliff, going for the assist. “There’s no more weed. I correct everybody now. Because that’s part of getting rid of the stigma. It’s medicine.”

Cliff has a lot of company in seeing it that way. In California, for instance, pot is a $17 billion-a-year industry (the state’s most lucrative crop), and could become much bigger if Prop. 19 passes in November, legalizing limited possession and growth for all individuals, and allowing for taxation. Even now there are an estimated quarter of a million medical marijuana users in the state. And the top reason for which it’s being prescribed isn’t cancer or AIDS—which are cited habitually by advocates of medicinal pot—but “chronic pain” (40 percent).

As of this spring, of the 33,000 medical users in Oregon, 29,500 are being treated for pain (muscle spasms and nausea follow distantly, still ahead of cancer and HIV/AIDS). In Colorado, medical marijuana is such the rage that Colorado Springs has started taxing it. Denver now has more dispensaries than Starbucks, the Denver Post reports. With that much “medicine” available, no wonder Denver’s alternative paper went so far as to hire a medical marijuana reviewer. And in California’s Bay Area this year, High Times magazine held their first ever Medical Cannabis Cup to pick the best medical marijuana from local dispensaries. Which says most of what you need to know about the wink-and-nudge nature of medical weed. Imagine a critic being hired to review, say, thyroid medications, or for those medications to have names like High Times winners “God’s Pussy” and “Durban Poison.” 

‘Stoners Win’

Though the medicalized cannabis industry in Michigan is in its infancy, business is brisk. James McCurtis, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Community Health, tells me they’ve received or renewed 54,765 applications since the program’s inception in April 2009. Though he has no current stats on how many caregivers (i.e., pot providers) that entails, 27,755 patient registrations have been issued, and there is a three-month backlog. McCurtis says they get up to 900 applications per day. 

Except for the backlog, these are not hard tickets to secure. Only one out of every eight applicants has been turned down. A state court of appeals judge recently lamented in a decision, “Michigan will soon have more registered marijuana users than we do unemployed—an incredible legacy for the Great Lakes State.”

While Med Grow’s house doctor requires documentation to back up a claim for a malady before he writes recommendations for state certification, that is not always the case elsewhere. As Cliff freely admits, “It’s basically a doctor’s opinion [the state] is relying on,” he says. “Doctors are held harmless. .  .  . So you go to a chiropractor, pay him for some X-rays, tell him your back is hurting you. Then make another doctor appointment, bring your X-rays, so you can document that you’ve had some chronic pain. You may have to do one or two visits. But it wouldn’t take you long.”

Whether pot actually works as medicine is a scientific tit-for-tat too tortured and voluminous to replicate here. Suffice it to say that hardliners on both sides of the issue have blood-red fingertips from cherry-picking the literature. 

Just as an example, as a recent Congressional Research Service report on the subject reminds us, the FDA in 2006 declared that “smoked marijuana is harmful” and hadn’t been approved “for any condition or disease,” nor have the data “supported the safety or efficacy of marijuana for general medical use.” Plenty took issue, saying the FDA ignored the findings of a 1999 Institute of Medicine Report, which reviewed all existing studies on cannabis’s therapeutic value, and which many cast as a victory for the pro-medicine forces, even if the conclusions were an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand affair. The report stated that until a “non-smoked rapid-onset cannabinoid drug delivery system becomes available, we acknowledge there is no clear alternative for people suffering from chronic conditions that might be relieved by smoking marijuana, such as pain or AIDS-wasting,” but also that “smoked marijuana is unlikely to be a safe medication for any chronic medical condition.”

Still, if THC—the main psychoactive component of marijuana—has no medical benefit for things such as appetite stimulation in chemotherapy patients, why did the FDA approve the pill Marinol in 1985, a synthetic form of THC that provides some of old-fashioned marijuana’s benefits without the smoking hazards?

Both sides often resort to caricature. The hard-liners become Reefer Madness scolds who say the only thing marijuana is good for is making you a slow-witted paranoid criminal and a prime candidate for drug-addiction. They’re often completely unsympathetic to any possible medicinal benefits, even though it is a plant found in nature. Poison ivy is too, they’ll point out, and we don’t go around putting that in our mouths.

The pro-pot side can exhaust you just as quickly. Give them a hearing, and they’re likely to go on hours-long gassy harangues in which they play George Washington Carver with cannabis as their peanut. They can recite a litany of the industrial uses of hemp (technically different from what you smoke), when at heart, they’re not interested in making twine or yoga mats—they just want to roll fatties and get baked. The slightly more sophisticated treat it as a miracle drug that can do everything from eradicating hangnails to improving your credit score. Am I exaggerating? Not by much. One California medical cannabis specialist, the late Dr. Tod Mikuriya, gave marijuana credit for treatment of over 250 indications, right down to attention deficit disorder, sinusitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, pre-menstrual stress, and alcohol dependency. 

Where all sides can find agreement is that medicalizing marijuana does wonders for its image. The pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C.-based outfit that was the architect of the Medical Marijuana Act that passed in Michigan, admits as much. Dan Riffle, a legislative analyst with the group tells me, “I think people still assume that politically [marijuana] is toxic, and don’t want to touch it. Which is shocking, because it passed with 63 percent of the vote. Slowly but surely, I think politicians think it’s not toxic.”

Riffle cites a recent ABC/Washington Post poll showing people support medical marijuana at 81 percent. “I don’t know anything that polls at 81 percent in this country. I don’t even know that God polls at 81 percent.” (He later sends a Fox News poll saying 85 percent of Americans believe in God, “so it’s within the margin of error,” Riffle clarifies.) 

On the other side of the divide, a former Office of National Drug Control Policy official whom I’ll call Smoky, basically concurs with his archnemesis, with caveats. “As soon as you publicly say pot is dangerous, you’re Reefer Madness guy. Nobody wants to be uncool.” Still, Smoky says, settling into his rant, most people don’t support legalization, which only polls at around 33 percent. But Smoky says the legitimization of marijuana is happening anyway, in three steps:

(1) Straight-up marijuana legalization is a political loser. Has been, is, will be. (Sorry Reasonoids, hippies, Barney Frank, Comicbook Store Guy, Bill Maher, you just need to get over this.) Which leads to .  .  . 

(2) Well .  .  . how ’bout if we sell it as “medical”? Turns out​—no surprise—when you ask people if their fellow citizens dying of cancer-AIDS should be allowed to have a puff or two during their last moments, most Americans say sure, why not? Which leads to .  .  . 

(3) Profit.

So, Smoky continues, “You have something (de facto legalization) that most people don’t want. They really won’t want it once the consequences (increased drug use, dependency, accidents, mental illness, stupider kids, less efficient workers) become clearer. But by that point the economic infrastructure will be in place to prevent a rollback. Stoners win. Everyone else loses. And I know you know there will be no tax revenue from any of this,” he adds facetiously. “Still, a violation of federal criminal law, bro.”

‘You Need a Good CPA’

At Med Grow, on my first day of school, I take a seat at a table, waiting for classmates who range in age from their mid-twenties to their early sixties, to file inside to the classic rock strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Blues Image’s “Ride Captain Ride.” Like Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl Okies who pushed west for a more promising life picking fruit, students have come from as far away as Florida and even the Czech Republic to learn the ins and outs of Michigan’s new miracle crop.

The seatmate to my immediate right is a 32-year-old African-American woman who chooses “Komiko” as her fake name. She just graduated from the University of Michigan with a history major and a minor in communications. But Komiko lives in Ann Arbor, where the job market has cratered. She’s debated going to law school or getting a teaching certificate, but decided to sell medical marijuana instead. “I just want to make money and pay off these student loans.” She has glaucoma herself, and is a transplant from California, “so I know good weed.” Komiko has plenty of friends already in the business. “Everybody’s doing it in California, it’s like an industry. It’s so new here in Michigan, so you got to get in on it now. And it’s legal? Please.”

To my left is a concert T-shirt bootlegger from Pittsburgh, who chooses the fake name “John.” He pulls in six figures annually traversing the country and hawking illegal T-shirts outside concert venues. He’s been shut down by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Dave Matthews. “They just confiscate your T-shirts. I get ticketed, but it’s bulls— .” John looks like he was dressed at the Eminem Fashion Academy (backwards Pirates hat, cubic zirconia earrings) and he makes himself at home, kicking his shoes off to knead his feet, and showing me his girlfriend on Facebook (“Wanna see my lady? She’s a Playboy model”). John is 25 and looks as healthy as a horse but tells me he has “a lower lumbar condition, anxiety attacks, and nausea,” as he wolfs down a sausage McMuffin. 

Because of these ailments, “I smoke six, seven blunts a day,” John says. And he doesn’t buy low-quality street weed, either. “I only smoke good weed.” Since good weed can go for about 400 bucks an ounce, and typically isn’t covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield, it can be an expensive regimen. But John doesn’t seem worried. That’s why he’s here: “To make a lot of money, grow a lot of pot. I’m thinking of moving here.” When I ask him how he’ll get patients, which he needs to do first in order to become a certified caregiver, he says, “Easy. I’ll just go to compassion clubs”—private meeting places which serve as support groups for patients and caregivers and where people often smoke their medicine. “It’s like an AA meeting,” John says. Except that people aren’t trying to quit.

Roughly half of our instruction time is commandeered by Graham. I would tell you his last name, but I’m not exactly sure what it is. I see two Grahams on my printed materials—a Lowe and a Wallis. When I ask Graham which one he is, he says it doesn’t matter. They’re both fake names, but “anyone named Graham is me.”

Graham has multiple forearm tattoos, wears T-shirts with inscriptions such as “It’s fun to use learning for evil,” and is a weed genius. If you need to know the difference between phototropism and phyllotaxy, Graham is your man, since he has a good 15 years of “horticulture experience,” as they say in the business. Where he got that experience, considering it’s only been legal in Michigan for less than two years, “I’ll never tell. I ain’t incriminating my damn self.”

When not lecturing on the amount of wattage needed in grow-rooms or the demands of growing hydroponically, he hands out homework assignments, which everyone massively cheats on, sharing answers. (It is, after all, pot school.) When Graham asks them to turn in assignments, he illustrates how many who are now joining this legal racket still feel rather illegal about it: “Make sure your name is on it. I don’t care if it’s a fake name. Just make sure you answer when I call out your fake name.”

But it’s not a hobbyist’s class. The other half of the syllabus involves a steady stream of suit-and-tie wearing outsiders, coming in to firehose us with information, then passing out cards to generate business. A financial planner from AXA Advisors tells us, “We want to make sure we show you the difference between tax avoidance and tax evasion. It’s about 20 years.”

“You need a good CPA, you need a good attorney,” says the planner. And of course, if this industry booms, he says, “what do you think the state’s gonna wanna do? Tax the revenue, right? When those changes arise, we like to specialize in specific industries so that we know how it’s going to be impacted. .  .  . Confidentiality is off the chart with us.” 

Accountant Brent Jones, in between relating the importance of keeping receipts for fertilizers and other expenses, tells the class they may want to think about expanding their “caregiver” business into other holistic services, to make it more legitimate. The students are confused. Cultivating a patient’s marijuana plants is the service. Maybe so, says Jones, but it’s still federally illegal, so “the IRS would have a problem with that, because in their eyes, it’s just a distribution network.”

“So we gotta lie to the IRS?” gasps one student. “We’re going to have problems?”

“I’m saying you could,” says Jones. “I’m making you aware of it. I’m telling everyone keep your nose clean and dot your ‘i’s. There’s no simple solution. This is frontier, here.” He hastens to add, he’s not giving medical or legal advice. No matter, the school brings in a doctor and a lawyer for that. 

‘Dr. Green’ and the ‘Cannabis Counsel’

Dr. Green, as he asks to be called, has his own practice but also does exams on-site at the school to qualify patients for state cards. As pot doctors go, he’s a seemingly reluctant champion of the medicine, reviewing for the class lists of the maladies that can qualify patients under the statute, while throwing in a skeptical two cents.

Marijuana’s great for Alzheimer’s agitation, he says. If your disoriented elder loved one keeps trying to leave the house and wander off, “Make Grandpa a brownie” and “maybe he’ll calm down and sit on the couch.” For rheumatism and arthritis? “Ehhh .  .  . I don’t know,” Green says. For cardiac patients? “Any cannabis can increase your heart rate. .  .  . It may not be beneficial.” For chronic pain? “It works reasonably well. I don’t think it’s the best pain reliever in the world. But some people are going to argue with me that it takes away their pain—fantastic.” Also, he doesn’t recommend smoking it—use vaporizers or edibles. Because, warns Green, “it can increase the risk of chronic lung disease, emphysema, and may increase the risk of throat and/or lung cancer.”

This could depress a regular medicine smoker. Unfortunately, Green doesn’t think pot would help that depression: “If you’re depressed, you really think going home, smoking a joint and sitting on the couch is going to be beneficial? I don’t think that’s going to motivate most people. But at this point, there’s no approval for that anyway.” All that said, if you want to get your medical card, Green says, “I need a little bit of paperwork to show me what’s going on. Look, I’m open-minded. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was beneficial, all right? But I still need something.” 

One of the problems with Michigan’s marijuana statute is that it is a total hash, to borrow one of the requisite bad puns all visiting writers indulge in when expounding on this subject. Both supporters and detractors agree that the law is mum on everything from how to get plants (federal law prohibits you from buying seeds) to whether dispensaries are even allowed to sell, meaning the estimated 40-100 currently operating in Michigan may be doing so illegally. This is no small issue. Much of the profit these caregivers could see after selling the requested amount to their patients would come from selling their overages to dispensaries, which would then mark up the product and sell it to other patients.

Local lawyer Matt Abel, who specializes in marijuana cases, as his Cannabis Counsel banner on the classroom wall not-so-subtly advertises, answers all sorts of questions, dispensing advice such as, “A party—that’s not a medical use. So if you’re having a gathering of patients, it’s inadvisable to call it a party.” When someone asks if you can freeze marijuana to make sure you don’t go over medicine-possession limits, he says, “Look, if you can’t figure out what to do with cannabis, maybe you shouldn’t be growing it. The whole idea is to market this stuff, not keep it in your freezer. .  .  . The dispensaries are saying the most serious issue in opening one is supply.” 

When I press him on the ins and outs of running a dispensary, since state law is mute on it, Abel starts answering my questions, then abruptly stops, saying: “God, I feel like I’m going over the line telling people how to operate a dispensary. It’s interesting. I just don’t want to conspire with you to violate federal law in front of 100 people! I value my law license. .  .  . Look, I’m a lawyer. You run the damn business!”

Not for nothing does Abel call Michigan at the moment “the wild, wild Midwest.” He also indemnifies himself: “If you think I encouraged anyone here to do anything illegal, let me know, because my job is to make sure you comply with the law.” Which is why you can hire him to help you set up a dispensary for a $40,000 retainer, or for $300 an hour on other matters, though “when my new office gets done, no doubt it’s going to go up.”

Other professors are more gung-ho. Mark Bankes, a peppy Tony Robbins type and self-described “serial entrepreneur,” tells us, “Many people are here because it’s a business, not because of their love of the product. Pure and simple they’re here because this is an opportunity to make 250 grand a year, and potentially upwards of a half million.” 

Taking a break to make a phone call, I see my tablemate, Pittsburgh John, working the phone in the lobby, looking for a doctor to certify him in Michigan. He suggests I should get certified, too. I tell him I don’t have any ailments, plus, I’m from out of state. “So am I,” says John. “That doesn’t matter!” I tell John if he gets an appointment, he’ll miss an important business lecture. “I ain’t worried about business,” he shrugs, “this stuff sells itself.” 

The Dealer vs. the Caregiver

After class one evening, I take a field trip to meet with a care provider. All right, he’s not a care provider, he’s an old-fashioned drug dealer. He still just has “customers.” He doesn’t have any “patients” yet, but he’ll get some when he gets certified, after he becomes a patient himself. “It’s either going to be migraine headaches or chronic back pain, both of which I suffer from, I just haven’t chosen one,” he says.

The dealer tells me to call him Herb Moore, “because when you sign that name backwards—more herb!” He’s a friend of a friend of mine. My friend we’ll call Applejack, since we’re meeting in his backyard, where he swigs from homemade applejack. Applejack is miffed that he can’t legally make his own hooch, but Herb will soon be able to legally grow his own pot. “Yeah, I got my medical marijuana card,” Applejack says, caustically. “You know what it’s for? To regulate my anxiety while I’m smoking crack.”

Herb is of two minds about the medical marijuana industry. On the one hand, it will give him a cloak of legitimacy if his illegal operation gets busted, so long as he’s holding a card. While that doesn’t guarantee he won’t go to jail, it improves his chances, and he figures the DEA is generally less likely to kick doors down around these parts with the influx of so many medical growers. “It’s easier to handle your product,” he says.

Conversely, with the glut of legal growers, more product means lower prices. Less risk, less reward. Also, there’s just too many amateurs. Herb grows organically in soil, and says, “If it roughly smells like the skunk variety, people think it’s good. Even though it’s f—ing inferior.” Plus, a lot of the medical growers are getting unfair access to his market. Some patients say, “ ‘Give me an ounce or so a month, and you can have my 12-plant allowance to grow,’ ” says Herb. “That’s how the hustle is working.”

Applejack does some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations. He estimates 12 plants, timed to harvest intermittently, could yield two pounds of usable bud a month. If you flat-out give your patient an ounce per month, you could make $4,500 per month off just one patient’s plants. And you’re allowed four more patients—five, if you include yourself. Making it quite possible to gross over $300,000 a year working, more or less, within the state system. 

Still, Herb moans, “It introduces inferior products to market—”

“Medicine!” Applejack interjects.

“Medicine,” says Herb, standing corrected. “And basically there’s too much product going around. The street prices are going down.” 

With our drinks running low, Herb pulls out a baggie of Mystic, all purple hairs and glistening trichomes, and asks, “Wanna smoke some herb with Herb?” I decline. I thank Herb, but tell him I never touch the stuff, figuring it will only get in the way of more important things like work, family, and drinking. 

Herb exhales a cloud of smoke, and tries to locate what’s eating him about the new medicine show: “Maybe it’s the fact that I need my respect. People nowadays can get their card and start up doing whatever. I paid my dues. Put my time in. I’ve dodged the freakin’ law for all these f—in’ years. I just don’t want them putting bad product on the market and f—in’ with all the prices.” 

The Entrepreneurs

It would be easy to assume that all new entrants into the industry are coming to it in bad faith. Not so, I learn from my classmates back at school. There are guys like Bob Nead, a cable-contractor from Ohio who admits he smokes about a quarter of an ounce a week for his shot knee, as he prefers that to popping Vicodin—it helps him sleep. He wants to become a caregiver to his terminally ill aunt and to provide a better living for his two children.

But, he says, after he gets certified, he’s not giving any to friends, and is going to find genuinely sick patients. “I don’t want to break any kind of laws. I want to be totally legit,” he says, even if he thinks it’s foolish to criminalize pot. “It’s not like I’m going to go out and shoot people ’cause I smoked a joint. You’re too lazy to pick up the gun.” (I hear some version of this defense a couple of dozen times over the course of my stay, and it’s probably true, for the most part. Though it’s worth noting that, according to crime statistics kept by the ADAM II law-enforcement database, more people arrested for violent crimes tested positive for marijuana than for any other drug—meaning Bob is wrong that everybody on weed is as peace-loving as he is. At the very least, he owes an apology to heroin and cocaine users.) 

Then there’s gray-haired Dave, who is 58, lost his job over a year ago as a general manager of a plastic recycling company, and got into this not knowing if he could go back to work. The last time he smoked pot “was a little, in college.” He doesn’t like it—“it makes me paranoid.” But if this takes off, he’ll run his business “like a Boy Scout.” After all, he’s a pillar of his community, sits on boards, and used to be the head usher at his church. He has a reputation to think about—which is why he’s not telling anyone he’s here.

There’s Bulldog, a 32-year-old Oklahoma City native, so named because he trains dogs. The only time he ever smoked pot was “three or four times in high school after the beer was gone. And I got sick.” He now has bad knees from laying tile and working dogs, and can’t make ends meet even with his college-degree-holding wife, so he’s looking to start over. Lately, he’s been reduced to delivering pizzas to support his family, a job he had in high school, except he made more money back then because “people still tipped.” 

There’s Anastasia (“That’s a pretty fake name,” I compliment. “Thank you,” she responds). Anastasia is a sunshiny black woman who wears bright pastel Sunday-morning clothes to class. I tell her she looks like a church lady. “That’s because I am,” she says. She’s actually a reverend’s wife, and is such an innocent, she’s never smoked a cigarette. “We don’t even drink,” she says. “The closest we come is a virgin strawberry daiquiri.” 

She and her husband are good Christians, and she only wants really sick patients who are also good Christians. “So that they know they’re buying Christian marijuana?” I ask, somewhat smartly. But Anastasia will not be deterred. She understands people will be cynical. She’s cynical herself, in some ways. But “life has changed for us.” In the last few years, with their family restaurant folding and her caretaker job about to come to an end, they’ve lost the majority of their income and need a new lifeline. So she plans on making marijuana-laced edibles for terminally ill patients. She and her husband prayed over it, and found peace because it’s now legal. Still, she’s not telling anyone, and worries that it looks like “we’re becoming dope dealers. We’re just looking to help others, and ourselves at the same time.”

Not everyone’s quite so innocent. Stoney D (fake name) lost his job as an autoworker about a year ago, and says, “When my boss handed me my pink slip, I smiled.” He was tired “of being strapped to a machine inside of a shop.” Now he says he can do what he loves. “Taking your medicine and playing Xbox?” chimes in his pal, Nick, a hospital transporter standing next to us on a (cigarette) smoke break. Stoney intimates that he already moved medicine a bit before, saying because of the clandestine nature of the business, many of the best friends he’s ever made are the people he smokes with. But he is grateful for the legal cover now, being a patient for gastritis and hiatal hernia, even if he thinks buying your medicine at a dispensary is kind of a joke.

“They have all the little people walking around in white coats like they’re pharmacists or dentists or something. It’s like, ‘Just bring me back to the counter where the weed’s at. Enough with the dog and pony show.’ But they’ve been making us jump through hoops for years, why stop now? As long as we keep ’em off our back.” 

Stoney and Nick admit they’re guilty of several pothead stereotypes. Yes, they like to get baked, eat Cheetos, and watch Harold & Kumar. But, Stoney protests, “They say we’re unproductive, but how many people are on Facebook all day, playing FarmVille” having no human contact? “Facebook’s horrible,” Nick amens. “Kids sitting on it all day getting obese because they’re drinking Red Bull and eating donuts. Go out and do something! Go out and grow some pot!” 

“What’s worse?” Stoney concludes. “They’re two evils. You smoke one and stare at the other.” Pot is kind of like Stoney’s Facebook. “We use weed to keep up with our friends.”

Some stereotypes at Cannabis College die hard. One day, when my classmates are outside on a smoke break, I ask them if they mind my taping an interview. “Don’t see why not, that guy’s been taping us all week,” says one. He points to a white work van across the parking lot which is facing us, and sure enough, it looks like a police stakeout van. I go over to check, and all I see inside are tools and an empty Tim Hortons cup.

But the following day, we do see someone sitting inside the van, staring at us. We huddle conspiratorially, until a female classmate walks out, sizes up the situation, and says, “He’s in our class, you paranoid schizophrenics.” Indeed, he is. The van man isn’t a cop, but a painter from Indiana. 

Others, however, don’t conform to stereotype at all. One evening, I meet the school’s owner, Nick Tennant, at a Royal Oak restaurant. Wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and Crocs, he insists he’s 24 8/9ths years old, but looks so young that he whips his driver’s license out for the waitress before he orders his Pilsner, since her asking is a given. I figure I’m in for a night of the usual pothead rigamarole, but I’m not. 

Tennant tells me he smokes a little as a patient for food intolerances, but that marijuana doesn’t motivate him—he saw a window of opportunity after his auto-detailing business started failing, and took it. Since he likes to spend hour upon hour on Google researching new business ideas, he figures he’ll be onto something else soon enough. I tell him he sounds like some kind of Republican. In fact, he is, he grudgingly admits. He voted for McCain over Obama. “Fiscally, it made sense, right?” he says.

Tennant also surprises me by saying while he’s personally not against legalization—a wastrel will be a wastrel whether cannabis is available or not—he doesn’t think we’re ready to do so: “We have no regulatory system. We have no taxation system. Everything is very ambiguous. It’s a wild west type thing. How do you know if the guy driving down the street is stoned out of his mind? There’s no field sobriety test to see if someone’s completely wasted behind the wheel. These are the things that worry me about outright legalization. .  .  . We’re not ready. There’s no way. It’d be a detrimental effect on society.”

But others aren’t so conflicted about the new frontier. One afternoon, I approach a lean thirtysomething classmate with a hard stare who wears baggy jeans and seems to know the answers to all the teachers’ questions. Hank (fake name) has dealt pot since he was 16 years old, and has even raised a family of five doing so. He also did a year in prison for getting caught. So Hank describes the new reality as “a dream come true—unbelievable.” In the old days, you had to look over your shoulder for police. But now he’s here in the open, even if “I was reluctant—had to talk to two lawyers before I came out of the dark.” 

The problem, he says, “is the street is still pulling for you to be illegal.” For years, Hank says, “I hung my head in shame. Now, I’ve got a 16-year-old son, and I told him, you can be a part of this, it’s medicine. It’s legal.” He plans on going legal, too. Kind of. He’s telling all his customers to get their cards: “Chronic pain, your back. A byproduct of human evolution. It’s a loophole for anybody to get in. Two hundred dollars to a doctor—and cheaper for me because I give them so many referrals. It’s a money maker.” He’s already maxed out on his plants—both as a patient and a caregiver. I ask if any of them are actually sick. He nods, saying, “Back pain.” 

Right now, he’s planning on letting his wife open a dispensary; he’s forbidden to, having a federal drug charge in his jacket. But he’s in the background, cultivating his famed Lemon strain (“we’re like local legends in Detroit”) and selling his overage to dispensaries. Like Tennant, Hank’s not overly enthusiastic about legalization, but for different reasons. “If the big guys get in [meaning corporations], the little guy is done.” Though the big guys “can never mass produce the superior strain. We handcraft.” So with his skills, he figures even in that nightmare scenario, he’ll still be okay—either functioning as a niche brand, or hired by the corporations.

Hank is giving all his illegal customers two months to get their cards through the state, then “I’m not messin’ with nobody.” He’s even thinking about opening a grow school himself. “I want my kids to be proud of me. I have a skill,” Hank says, beaming. “Before, it felt like I was a loser. Now, I’m a professor.” 

Dueling Dispensaries

To further my education, I take a field trip to see two dispensaries. The first, in Ferndale, a Detroit suburb in Oakland County, is called Clinical Relief. Though state law makes no provision for dispensaries, Ferndale has passed an ordinance permitting them. Before I go, I am screened by its lawyer, Paul Tylenda, who tells me the dispensary wants to “maintain image control.”

When I get there, I’m met by Tylenda and one of three co-owners, Ryan Richmond, both in suits. The “clinic” sits in a sleepy neighborhood complex, at the end of which resides the office for Alcoholics Anonymous. “There is an argument that marijuana is a good step-down drug from alcohol,” Tylenda says. They show me how people are buzzed in through a security door, and we enter a nouveau-industrial space which looks a bit like a Chipotle burrito restaurant, only with employees walking around in white doctor-coats. 

They primly walk me through the process of consultations and paperwork and credential-checking. They tell me nobody is permitted to smoke on-site, and show me one of the bags they heat-seal the marijuana in to discourage any on-premises use. The gentlemen seem cautious to the point of paranoia. Not only did Richmond make sure his lawyer was there, but he also tapes our interview on his phone, and tells me, “We’re very conscious of state law. .  .  . We’ve got 10 guys like Paul telling us what to do here. .  .  . Everyone assumes we’re instant millionaires, but we’re walking on eggshells.”

They are so self-conscious, in fact, they would not permit me to come during office hours since I don’t have a medical marijuana card, nor did they have the medicine displayed in the dispensary shelves. When I ask what strains they carry, Richmond instructs an employee to give “the most normal sounding names.” A woman behind a pharmacy-like counter struggles, but the most CVS-sounding brands she can come up with are Master Kush, Grape Skunk, and Sour Diesel. When another manager walks up on me taking photos of the empty shelves with Richmond’s permission, he almost has an aneurysm, and tells me to put the camera away. 

Tylenda, Richmond, and I commiserate about the vagueness of the law, and the don’t-ask-don’t-tell nature of where the medical marijuana is supposed to originate (again, one cannot even purchase seeds, as though plants are supposed to fall from the sky). Still, says Richmond, “You look at some of these clubs, Puff Daddy’s and the Green Spot—what’s our name? Clinical Relief. You’re not going to see a Cheech and Chong movie here. That’s the stigma we’re trying to get away from. The ’70s didn’t help. It’s our biggest hurdle—the stigma of marijuana.” On the way out, I pass a patient in a wheelchair waiting to get buzzed in. All told, the operation seems by the book—if there were a book to go by. 

My second experience comes with an operation that seems to run a little more loosely—a medical marijuana delivery service based in downtown Detroit. I find the Ant Farm Compassion Club through potlocator.com. Its website says that it allows one free delivery per day and depicts an old third-world woman smoking a joint the size of an overweight chinchilla, with an animated ant asking, “Where da good stuff?” It also contains reviews of the medicines of the week, such as Purple Crack and OG Kush. (“Believe the hype; believe that you will be severly [sic] couch-locked if not borderline catatonic. Belive [sic] in the OG Kush.”) 

The proprietor, Ant himself, seems amenable over the phone to my going out on a run with his guys. He gives me detailed directions to meet his deliveryman outside a Rite-Aid on 8 Mile Road. I drive there as instructed, past check-cashing places and liquor stores and check-cashing liquor stores, for those who prize one-stop efficiency. Outside the Rite-Aid, I visibly hold a notebook, so that Ant’s guys can tell who the reporter is, though the fact that I’m the only white guy for miles around might be a tip-off. An SUV stops in front of me, and rolls down the window, but it’s not them. The driver just wants to know if I’m a cop. 

Ant’s men finally arrive, and I jump in their SUV, with a marijuana-leaf cinnaberry air freshener and a pack of Newports on the dash. I am greeted by Neil, who is driving, and Justice, who sits in the backseat with a leather briefcase containing the medicine. They both wear black dress slacks, ties, and crisp white shirts, and look like Jehovah’s Witnesses going on a drug run. When I ask Neil if they did deliveries even before the product officially became medicine, Neil says, “Well, uh, I’ll let Ant answer that one for us.” Justice, sitting in the backseat, says, “Hey, I plead the Fifth.” 

As we drive to the first delivery point on the East Side, Ant’s men review the procedures of how they check medical cards and won’t deliver if a patient doesn’t have one. I ask if they’ve been muscled by old-school dealers who might feel their turf is threatened. “No,” says Justice. “Ain’t nobody do that no more. Times are hard.” I ask if the men are worried about getting rousted by cops, and they say no. But when one drives by, Neil instructs, “Put your seatbelt on, they real sticky here about those seatbelts.” Justice adds, “You don’t want to come here on vacation and go back on probation.”

One of the deliveries we make is to a big shambling house in a run-down historic neighborhood. Neil makes me wait in the truck during the medication hand-off (today’s strains are G-Thai and Purple Crack, they tell me). But the man we are delivering to, Firefighter, agrees to have me in for an interview. He asks to be called Firefighter, since that’s what he is. And while much of the medical marijuana game is about conceits and appearances, not so for Firefighter. As he fries shrimp on the stove for his three toddlers, and pops a Bud Light for me, he lays it bare.

He’s been a legal patient for nine months, but he’s been an illegal patient since he was 17. “It helped me through college, it helped me through divorce, it just helps me cope,” says Firefighter. He says of getting a card, “It’s a joke. For some people it’s not. Some need it for cancer. .  .  . ” Then he smiles, continuing, “for eyesight, bad day, stressed out. I got three kids with two baby mommas—don’t say baby momma cause my girl hates that. I have a girlfriend I love very much who is also a patient.

“But I think it’s a farce, ’cause I know a guy who literally calls himself the Budtender. He goes to local concert events. Walks in with like two, three pounds. With all the cards that he has [from caregiver and patient cut-outs], he can carry up to four-and-a-half, almost five pounds of marijuana. Day I saw him, this motherf— had 17 different types of herb in a roll-up backpack. Everything from White Widow to you name it. It was ridiculous.” 

As for his own personal use, no patient is supposed to hold more than 2.5 ounces at a time, according to law. But of course, there’s nothing stopping them from procuring 2.5 ounces or less, from either their caregiver or a dispensary, as many times as they want. So Firefighter says, “I have five or six different outlets I can go to with my card. I have five different strains in the house now.” When I ask if he isn’t worried about being over his allowance, he nods, saying, “Oh, definitely. But by the end of the evening, I’ll be good.”

After midnight, I meet Ant for dinner at the Harbor House restaurant downtown. “It’s right next to the police station,” Ant tells me. He and a biker friend, Canary Yellow, arrive on motorcycles to join me, Neil, and Justice. Ant looks a bit like the late rapper Biggie Smalls, and wears a tent-sized T-shirt with a black Red-Cross style cross on it, a Rocawear hat, and sparkly Cartier glasses. Canary Yellow sings like a canary, too. When a Sinatra song comes on at the karaoke bar, he makes up new words: I wanna be a part of it / Detroit, Detroit.

Ant was intent on ordering the all-you-can-eat crab legs. But since the restaurant closes in 45 minutes, our waitress, Vanessa, suggests we might not have enough time. “Then you gonna have to work hard for us, baby,” says Ant. Though he boasts of having over 10 years of horticulture experience, Ant sets up one interview ground rule: “Nothing about anything before the law.” 

When the crab legs come, along with Ant’s Electric Lemonade, Ant has us all grab hands as he prays, “Keep your arms of protection around us. Guide our minds and our decisions. In Jesus’ name, amen.” Ant runs me through how he’s completely legal. “We doin’ all right,” he says. Still, he adds, “You gotta keep your numbers together. It’s legal, but you still got a lot of people gunning for you. It’s still fresh for a lot of law enforcement. .  .  . You don’t want to do anything to put a flag on yourself.” 

Ant himself is a patient—for an arthritic knee. He’s tried Vicodin, but it upsets his stomach, so he prefers to hit the OG Kush “and feel no pain.” Of the glut of newcomers to the industry, he says, “You got 50 percent of the people right now who don’t have a clue what the hell they’re doin’. They’re just tryin’ to fake it until they make it. Doesn’t matter to me, because you can’t match up with my quality.” 

Ant tells Vanessa the business he’s in, and asks if she has a patient card. “No,” Vanessa says. “But I’d like to get one. I actually want to be a grower.” She’s looked into securing two grand to get her grow-room together. Ant turns to me, saying, “You got 25-30 percent of the automotive force doing medical marijuana now. People in this trade used to be plant workers. You get [waitresses] like Vanessa that could grow weed at night at their leisure, go to work at their regular job, bring in an extra 15 thousand a year. How much would 15 thousand help you, Vanessa?” 

“I think that’s wonderful,” Vanessa coos. “That’s my plan!”

The Sheriff Strikes Back

A few days after I visit the two dispensaries, one of them is busted by Oakland County law enforcement. Have a guess which one? Wrong. It was Clinical Relief, caught up in a sweep by authorities, just days after Ferndale okayed dispensaries. A total of 17 people from three facilities were rounded up, including two of Ryan Richmond’s co-owners. Police charged employees with selling marijuana to customers without state cards, as well as selling outside the dispensary. 

The Oakland County sheriff, Mike Bouchard, cried out for clarity from the legislature, saying the law does not permit dispensaries, and selling pot is still a federal crime. “This is Michigan, not some Cheech and Chong movie,” he said at a news conference. 

When I call Clinical Relief lawyer Paul Tylenda, he’s happy to tell me the usual drug-enforcement horror stories: how the charges are “bulls—,” how his clients’ homes were ransacked, how their children had guns drawn on them, how the cops even took money out of the kids’ piggy banks, how undercover officers posed as patients with proper identification, how, oh yeah, there was one employee trying to undercut Clinical Relief’s price by selling to a patient in the parking lot (“he would have been thrown out on his ear if anybody had known about it”), and how his clients, after making bail, even had to buy back their seized cars from “the Sarge’s used car lot.” If convicted, his clients could face years in jail for doing what they thought the law permitted, or at least didn’t prohibit.

Sheriff Bouchard, when reached by phone, denies the horror stories. He says he’s not confused about the law: “There is no place to legally buy marijuana in the state. If there’s no place to legally buy medical marijuana, it’s illegal to buy medical marijuana.” The city of Ferndale smiling on such activities with ordinances doesn’t matter to him. “You cannot zone illegal activity into legality, you can no more zone for a dispensary than you can for a cocaine or heroin shop. .  .  . We’re the referees, we enforce the rules. If you don’t like the rules, go to Lansing or to the voters and get them changed.”

Michigan Court of Appeals judge Peter O’Connell, in a nonbinding opinion in an unrelated medical marijuana case, expressed a take similar to Bouchard’s, taking 30 pages to painstakingly eviscerate the Michigan Marijuana Act. He said it makes no provision for the retail sale of medical marijuana, also noting that another judge called it “one of the worst pieces of legislation I have ever seen in my life.”

Cannabis lawyer Matt Abel, who lectured in our class, says of the judge’s dicta, that he’s “going off the deep end. He can write whatever he wants, but it doesn’t mean s—.” All this, Abel says, is a “sop to the Supreme Court to beg them to adopt his crazy-ass arguments. .  .  . I ain’t afraid of him. He’s full of s—.” 

So all that is clear at the moment about the promise of dispensaries and the state of Michigan’s medical marijuana industry is that nothing is clear at all. 

Except to Ant, who, after the others’ arrest, remains optimistic and undeterred, with a slight change in best practices: “We had some patients we dealt with in Oakland and Macomb counties—they can’t get home deliveries anymore. They just have to come down to the city.” 

Meanwhile, back at Med Grow Cannabis College, I’m sitting in the parking lot in Pittsburgh John’s SUV. During class, he needed to medicate himself, and asked if I wanted to come. John pulls an Arby’s bag from under the seat which contains his medicine, and his multicolored pipe from his armrest. Possessing only a California medical marijuana card, though he lives in Pittsburgh, he found a Michigan dispensary willing to sell him some anyway.

John’s cranky, though, because it cost him 70 bucks for an eighth of an ounce, plus a $10 enrollment fee. “It’s pretty good stuff. It’s the dank,” he says, “but it’s $80 just for my medication—which I will never, ever, pay again. Ever.”

He pulls out of the parking lot, steering with his knee as he toasts up a bowl of Mr. Nice Guy. “Driving under the influence, being high, is like me being normal,” he explains. “If you drive drunk all the time, is it really drunk?” I ask, trying to sound sympathetic.

His expression clouds over, or maybe that’s just the second-hand smoke, which has some nice blueberry notes. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess that is drunk.”

After smoking for a while, he goes mellow, and says he’s swinging by the gas station to buy a Coke and Swedish Fish. He’s already got the munchies. I ask him, by the way, which of his ailments he’s medicating. His sore lumbar? His nausea? His anxiety? 

The worst one of all, he says, while knee-steering us to the gas station: “boredom.”

Matt Labash, a senior writer at The Weekly Standard, is the author of a collection of essays, Fly Fishing with Darth Vader (Simon and Schuster).

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