This week, the case of an 80-year-old grandmother in Michigan who was sent to jail because she had a personal quantity of cannabis in her own home — and her state medical marijuana card had expired — has sparked a national conversation about harmful cannabis laws.
In states with legal medical marijuana programs, patients are usually required to renew their medical marijuana cards. But this is a much more difficult process than getting a standard prescription renewed through your doctor’s office. Keeping medical marijuana paperwork in order can be a challenge for those already burdened with disabling health conditions.
Grandma Jailed for Expired Medical Marijuana Card
Delores Saltzman of Claire County — who suffers from arthritis and diverticulitis (stomach tract inflammation), as well as chronic muscle and bone aches — told local FOX 17 that cannabis saved her life, allowing her to eat and get through daily pain.
But, on the evening of June 13, Saltzman’s troubles began, when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on her door — on business completely unrelated to cannabis. The deputy was trying to locate Saltzman’s great-granddaughter and return her lost phone and ID. But the deputy smelled cannabis from Saltzman’s porch, and inquired about it.
“I told her it was mine,” Saltzman said the news channel, stressing that she was completely honest with the deputy.
Court records indicate that the deputy seized four joints and one jar with an undisclosed quantity of cannabis, as well as several pipes. Saltzman told FOX 17 that the quantity was less than an eighth of an ounce. Saltzman said the deputy also searched her bedroom and took pictures inside her home.
Saltzman was then handcuffed and placed in the deputy’s patrol car. She spent the night in the county jail. Saltzman was released the next morning, and the charges against her were dropped when she appeared before a Clare County judge on Aug. 2.
However, Clare County Sheriff John Wilson in a statement to FOX 17 offered this defense of his deputy: “What the person was doing was illegal, had she renewed her medical marijuana card she would have been fine. I agree with the action of the prosecutor’s office and allowing the subject to renew her card, thus dismissing the case. The person was illegally in possession of marijuana.”
Saltzman’s renewed medical marijuana card is now apparently on its way and she is urging her fellow Michiganders to approve the cannabis legalization measure that will be on the state ballot in November.
However, the question remains: Why should someone like Saltzman, with a chronic illness such as arthritis, be required to keep renewing her medical marijuana card?
Medical Marijuana Card Renewal: A Bureaucratic Burden on the Ailing
Let’s consider Michigan as an example, as their laws are similar to many other states with medical marijuana programs.
In Michigan, medical marijuana cards expire every two years, and it requires a “Patient Fee” of $60 to renew, as well as proof of Michigan residency and a “Physician Certification Form.” Of course, a physician’s visit is an additional financial cost for patients.
It’s also not a quick process to receive a medical marijuana card renewal. The Michigan Medical Marihuana Program is a state registry under the Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation, which is in turn under the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. Its website makes all too clear how a patient could end up in Saltzman’s position. It provides a number to call “[i]f you submitted an application more than five (5) weeks ago and have not received a response from our office.” Yet it also states that a “renewal application will only be accepted within 60 days prior to the card’s expiration date.”
While the specific details vary from state to state, most other medical marijuana programs place a similar bureaucratic and financial burden on patients. Under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, a card is only good for a year and costs a fee of $200 — plus an additional $200 for a patient’s designated grower, if they have one. This is, of course, on top of physician’s fees.
With Oregon’s general legalization of cannabis, one would think approval for the medical program is less of an issue. But medical marijuana providers have been effectively left out of the commercial system of “recreational” cannabis established by the state’s 2014 legalization initiative.
In California, legal space for “compassionate care” providers, who give cannabis to free to ailing patients, has similarly been left out of the state’s new “adult use” regulations — though California does not require patients to have a state card to participate in the medical marijuana program.
However, patients must hold a state-issued medical marijuana card in order to receive an exemption from the state sales tax. The California Department of Public Health only issued 6,172 Medical Marijuana Identification Cards in 2017, according to the East Bay Express — and that’s in a state of 38 million people. However, counties and municipalities may issue cards which are necessary to purchase medicinal cannabis locally, in addition to the required doctor’s recommendation. A primary caregiver’s card will also expire when the patient’s card does, regardless of whether its own year has run out.
The Post-Legalization Dilemma For Medical Marijuana Program
In Colorado, where a state card also expires after one year, the Kafkaesque experience of renewing a medical marijuana application was vividly described in the Colorado Springs Independent by journalist Cyndy Kulp — herself a registered medical marijuana user of eight years. The state’s Medical Marijuana Registry is maintained by the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE).
“Maintaining my status with the state as a patient has required planning,” Kulp writes. “MMJ cards, or red cards as they’re commonly known, are only good for one year, so I’ve had to think ahead, and schedule a medical exam well before my card’s expiration date.”
And digitization, which many patients had hoped would streamline the process, has in Kulp’s view only made matters worse. She related with exasperation: “In the early days, patients applied…on paper forms that needed to be filled out perfectly, including in the right color of ink. The process (which is still available) involved getting a money order for the state fee, cash for the doctor, and going to a post office to send the forms by certified mail (the procedure recommended by the companies that perform MMJ evaluations). Patients then waited four to six weeks for their card to arrive. If there was a problem, like incorrect information on the form, they started over again and waited another four to six weeks.”
This “old school” approach was “begging for an upgrade,” Kulp acknowledges.
But the upgrade has worked out poorly, thanks to a “difficult-to-navigate online renewal system.”
Being “fairly computer literate,” Kulp said she thought to herself, “How hard can it be?” Yet soon, “this typically unwieldy government site had me stumped and I was unable to proceed. The online directions didn’t help much, so I looked for a phone number for technical assistance. No luck there, the line was always busy.”
Kulp wraps up by noting that in Colorado too, the medical marijuana program has not outlived its function despite a general legalization of cannabis. While statewide numbers for enrolled medical marijuana patients have been dropping since legalization (approved by the voters in 2012) took effect in January 2014. However, the opposite trend is seen in her own El Paso County, where Colorado Springs is located. In this more conservative part of the state, legal cannabis is still not readily available.
“With only two recreational stores in Manitou Springs serving the entire county, the stores are crowded with locals and tourists,” Kulp writes. “Staffers can’t be expected to help patients with their medical questions.”
“Let’s hope the state does improve the system,” Kulp signs off. “Especially in El Paso County, where recreational marijuana is in short supply, it’s important to keep medical marijuana available to a growing patient population.”
But the experience of Colorado, California and Oregon provide a warning to medicinal users in places like Michigan who are looking to “recreational” legalization for relief. Legalization may be a step in the right direction, but it isn’t always sufficient to meet the needs of medical marijuana patients.
TELL US, are you a medical marijuana patient? Do you have to renew your card?