Every Thursday night at the Southgate Library, hardworking salt of the earth Michiganders primarily in their 30s, 40s, and 50s meet to talk passionately for an hour and a half about their trade: medical marijuana.
Some of the people are standing because there are not enough metal folding chairs to accommodate the rapidly growing crowds at the meetings. Eventually, after the meeting was already well underway, the library's staff brought in more chairs.
"63% of the people in Michigan said yes to medical marijuana. 63%!," Brian, bespectacled and gray-haired, tells the packed room of marijuana caregivers (the term for medical marijuana growers under the new Michigan laws) and patients, now 30 to 40 people strong, with a hint of defiance in his voice.
The law Brian is referring to is the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act. Effective as of December 4, 2008, the act made it legal for marijuana to be prescribed medicinally to patients and for designated caregivers to grow and provide marijuana for patients. Brian's Downriver Compassion Club is just one of many such clubs that have popped up in the area since the act passed, with Compassion Club meetings happening regularly in Southfield, Birmingham, and other cities. The clubs are hoping to build a sense of community for caregivers and patients who still find themselves isolated and unsure of their legal rights under the new laws. Brian calls the current environment surrounding medical marijuana "the wild, wild west". A popular topic at these meetings is the continual harassment of caregivers by law enforcement.
"Politically, in the state, we're under attack," Brian explained. "You've got look at it, they just took a pretty big financial hit, so they're kind of pissed, because, well, look at all of the people they can't arrest and fine. So, in lieu of that, what they have decided to do is just arrest you anyway and let the courts sort it out."
Despite the legalization of medical marijuana statewide, the police forces and the court systems in countless cities continue to treat caregivers and patients with legitimate health problems like common criminals, with stories of friends or neighbors being harassed by the police or even arrested being told at almost every meeting.
With medical marijuana still illegal at the federal level, opponents of medical marijuana claim that laws at the state level legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana are empty gestures. Livonia, for example, recently passed a city ordinance stating that “uses for enterprises or purposes that are contrary to federal, state or local laws or ordinances are prohibited", an indirect attack on medical marijuana that gives the police the authority to arrest and fine patients and caregivers and to confiscate their medication.
For their part, caregivers and patients, as well as patients who are their own caregivers, are tired of feeling like outlaws and are eager to push for changes by attending the club meetings and other get-togethers centered around medical marijuana.
"You know, this is the frustration [in regards to law enforcement]. We've all been in this closet all of our lives and, you know, we want to be a part of the change. I want to be able to have something hopeful," one patient, a lady in her 40s, complained.
Thankfully for these people, the ACLU is fighting vigilantly for their legal rights in the state of Michigan. As of March 2010, the ACLU was demanding that the city of Royal Oak return what it believes was illegally confiscated medical marijuana to a man suffering from multiple sclerosis and challenging a Battle Creek Walmart for firing a cancer patient because he used marijuana medicinally. So far, it seems that neither Royal Oak or Walmart will back down from their positions.
Still, there is a feeling at the club meetings that the momentum is on their side and that medical marijuana will come to be accepted. At a recent meeting, the attendants were amazed by their own numbers, with one man jokingly asking, "this is the most people we've ever had... where did we all come from?"
Examples of lighter topics discussed at length at the meetings include growing techniques (Brian grows marijuana strains whimsically named "OG Kush" and "White Widow Buddha" using hydroponics), how to become a legal caregiver or patient under the new laws, plans to expand the club, and how to stop the smell of marijuana from seeping out of your house if you are a grower. The consensus on the last topic was that if you grow more than a couple of marijuana plants, the vicinity of your house is going to inevitably smell like marijuana and that there is not much you can do about it.
"All I can say is, don't open the door for the police unless they have a search warrant. I'd just shake my head 'no'," Brian said, and it was the best advice he could give.
On the topic of growing techniques, Isaac, who helps Brian run the club, brought live spider mites to the club to show guests. Guest were informed that this particular species of spider mites, which came to Isaac through the mail in a white cardboard box, eats other undesirable species of spider mites that can wreak havoc on marijuana plants. The spider mites wriggled under a microscope as people marveled at how small they were.
Isaac, a caregiver and patient, has post-traumatic stress disorder and scoliosis. He uses medical marijuana as a depressed person might use Prozac. His friend Brian smoked his first "joint" when he was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The rigors of chemotherapy had destroyed his appetite to the point that he was, in his own words, "near death". However, ten minutes after smoking his first joint, Brian was grilling a burger on a frying pan, the savory smell of burger seasoning filling up his apartment. Amazed ever since that moment by the therapeutic effects of marijuana, he is now a caregiver.
Suffice to say, people like Isaac are not the stereotypical burned-out "potheads" that use marijuana just to “get high”. They are using marijuana medicinally to treat chronic ailments, like the millions of other Americans that take medication daily for their health problems. To become a patient under the new laws, the patient must first obtain a doctor's prescription, and doctor's will not, as a rule, prescribe medical marijuana unless their patient have a serious underlying condition. Also, to become a caregiver, growers must have a designated patient (or patients) that they are supplying.
Most of the people Downriver Compassion Club have some sort of health issue that they are using marijuana to help medicate. Few are growing marijuana for the primary purpose of making a profit. Dan, a man in his 50s with failing kidneys, explained how marijuana helped him get through his ordeals.
"After dialysis [a procedure that removes wastes from the bloodstream when patient's kidneys no longer can, it can be exhausting], it's incredible as far as nausea goes," Dan said. "You smoke and you're not sick to your stomach anymore. You can eat after."
Marijuana's peculiar ability to make users hungry is oftentimes referred to humorously as "the munchies". Now, as a legal medicine, that ability can be more accurately defined with a clinical term: appetite enhancer.