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.

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