A lawsuit filed last week in Ingham County Circuit Court charges that the state agency responsible for issuing Michigan's medical marijuana registry identification cards is violating the law by not properly carrying out its legal responsibilities.
The suit, filed Sept. 19 against Steven H. Hilfinger, Director of the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), and Rae Ramsdell, Director of the Bureau of Health Professions with LARA, alleges that the Michigan Medical Marihuana Program (MMMP), which they oversee, is not acting in accordance with the state's marijuana act passed in 2008. The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Martin Chilcutt, a U.S. Navy veteran in his late seventies, who is the founder of a group called Veterans for Medical Marijuana Access.
The suit requests a writ of mandamus, a court order used to force government officials to perform their duties. Those who don't comply risk being found in contempt of court.
And it charges that the MMMP program has not established a review panel to add new medical conditions to a list allowing qualified patients to legally use pot according to the timeline set forth in state law; has not issued registry cards in a prompt manner; and has failed to issue annual reports.
There are currently 130,965 active patients and 26,896 active caregivers registered with the MMMP.
In order to get an ID card an applicant must send the registry written certification from a physician of a qualifying condition; a form providing information about themselves, their physician and, if necessary, a caregiver designated to handle and grow plants for them; a copy of photo ID; and a processing fee. Applications are supposed to be approved or denied in 15 days. There are roughly a dozen conditions or symptoms, such as Chrohn's disease, cancer and severe chronic pain, that would qualify a person to become a patient under the program.
In an interview last August, attorney Matt Abel of Cannabis Counsel, PLC, the law firm now filing the suit, told The Huffington Post that state had not yet set up the program's required review panel and because of that was at least two years behind in issuing recommendations to add new conditions to the program. According to a state statute that took effect in April 2009, a review panel is supposed to issue a recommendation to the Department of Community Health within 60 days of a petition being received; the department's director is supposed to approve or deny a petition within 180 days of it being filed with the department.
The MMMP has also struggled to issue registry cards to patients in a punctual manner. In March of last year the program got bogged down with a substantial backlog after it received over 16,000 applications in one month. The agency had to purchase new equipment to keep up with the influx.
Attorney Thomas Lavigne filed the lawsuit against the MMMP. He said medical marijuana advocates decided to appeal to the courts after efforts to press the matter with the agency and state legislators went nowhere.
"They're failing to uphold their duty to follow the law by issuing these cards in a timely manner and their time limits have long passed. It should be a no-brainer," he said. "It's just part of a larger pattern of complete disregard for patient and caregiver rights by the state apparatus on every level."
State Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge) supports the use of medical marijuana for chronic pain and cancer treatment but says the law is unclear and has sponsored a state senate bill that would outlaw its use by glaucoma patients.
Although he wouldn't comment directly on the lawsuit, Jones was supportive of LARA's work with the medical marijuana program.
"It is my understanding that the cards are being produced much faster," he said. "I do know that initially when the program first started they were slow, but it's my understanding they're now being done in a timely fashion."
Jones also said he was puzzled by the claim medical marijuana advocates were upset about not having access to reports from the MMMP.
"There's been information published in the newspapers -- how many cards there are and what percentages of different afflictions that they're being issued for. I think the information is available," he said. "I don't understand this group's inability to find what they want."
LARA spokeswoman Lori Donlan told The Huffington Post in an email that the state's medical marijuana program currently complies with the Michigan statute that concerns issuing cards in a prompt manner. She said all applications are reviewed and approved within 15 days of receipt; denials are issued and sent out in 15 days; and cards are printed and sent out within 24 to 48 hours.
In reference to the medical marijuana review panel, Donlan said the department still needs to include two more people on panel, but will schedule a meeting for before the end of the year. She added that the department willingly provides information on request and said a report will be put together "by fiscal year" and posted in the coming months.
"It was difficult to create annual reports at a time when the department had a significant backlog of applications to review and process," she said.
"When creating a new program it is difficult to estimate the number of participants and with the high volume of applications combined with the challenges in processing thousands of requests per month, the department has worked through these issues."
LARA had no comment about the recent lawsuit, which they said was being reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office.