Michigan Legalized Recreational Marijuana; What Does It Mean for People Living With HIV?

A medical marijuana dispensary in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
smontgom65 via iStock

Michigan is the first state in the Midwest and the 10th state in the nation to legally recognize marijuana for recreational use. Medical marijuana has been legal in Michigan since 2008, but on Nov. 6, 2018, Michigan went full tilt, as its citizens voted to legalize marijuana for use by anyone over the age of 21. The policy went into effect in early December.

But how far did Michigan really go? How does this change in the law change things for people living with HIV and other medical conditions? Does going from a medical marijuana state to a recreational use state change anything for those living with HIV?

To be honest, when I first thought of writing this piece, I fully expected to be writing an article about how much easier it just became for anyone with HIV (or any health concern) to purchase and obtain marijuana. As it turns out, that isn't the case at all.

Although it is now legal to grow (certain amounts), possess, and smoke marijuana, the new law in Michigan fails to provide a pathway to purchase marijuana -- at least for now. If you can obtain marijuana, it is legal to have it and smoke it, and since the only legal way to buy marijuana is still from a medical marijuana dispensary with a medical marijuana card, the recreational user can only legally obtain marijuana if someone who can purchase it from a dispensary "gifts" it to them. So while it is legal to use marijuana, it is still currently illegal to purchase it in Michigan. The only other way to legally obtain marijuana is for the recreational user to go through the time-consuming, painstaking process of growing it themselves.

Being fond of the marijuana myself, I can tell you from experience, it is not as easy as growing tomatoes. To grow your own, you have to know the difference between the "vegetative" and the "flowering" phases, you have to know how to identify the "male" plants from the "female" plants, and numerous other steps along the way. Aside from the fact that in most cases it takes at least four months to fully mature a marijuana plant to completion, growing your own is not a viable option for most.

The Challenges to Dispensaries

Almost immediately after weed became legal for medical purposes in Michigan a decade ago, hundreds of dispensaries popped up all over Michigan seemingly overnight, most of them in the Detroit area, and many of them operating illegally. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, "In March [2018], the state sent cease and desist letters to more than 200 dispensaries that were operating [illegally], but didn't submit applications for licenses, ordering them to shut down."

In September 2018, a judge approved an injunction against closing nearly half of the 200 illegal dispensaries. Here, the details get murky. Some dispensaries have stayed open, some have closed. Some have been raided, while others have been allowed to stay open while the police watch from outside, only to arrest citizens who shopped at those dispensaries, whether the consumer had a medical marijuana card or not. In the world of cannabis, Michigan has become sort of a "Wild West" of marijuana, where the regulations and policies of law enforcement seem out of sync with the spirit of legalization.

To help me sift through what is what with the state of cannabis in the State of Michigan, I reached out to Margeaux Bruner. Appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder, Bruner is a commissioner for Michigan's Impaired Driving Safety Commission who describes her work as representing qualified and registered medical marijuana patients. Commissioner Bruner points out that the measure to legalize marijuana in Michigan "was one of the most widely watched cannabis initiatives, as Michigan has twice the number of qualified and registered medical participants than Colorado; second only to California."

Advice for People With HIV Who Want to Access Marijuana

Since HIV and AIDS are qualifying conditions to obtain a medical marijuana card in Michigan, it is important for people living with HIV to understand the facts about accessing cannabis in Michigan. Commissioner Bruner told me that most people will not be able to purchase marijuana in a dispensary for probably a year and a half to two years without a medical marijuana card.

"All medical patients should continue to purchase in dispensaries. One exception being if you have a personalized patient-caregiver relationship and a unique strain of marijuana is being grown for your particular ailment," said Bruner. It never occurred to me that some particular strains of marijuana work well with some particular ailments. In fact, an article published by Harvard Medical School reveals, "One particular form of childhood epilepsy called Dravet syndrome is almost impossible to control, but responds dramatically to a CBD-dominant strain of marijuana called Charlotte's Web."

Commissioner Bruner also points out, "It is important to have medical marijuana that has been tested [as it is in proper dispensaries] for fungus and mold. This is imperative for anyone with a compromised immune system."

As reported in a very informative piece on November 13, 2018 in TheBodyPRO, around the nation, people living with HIV are using marijuana for a variety of reasons, and it is important for doctors to stay up to date on the latest science regarding marijuana and their patients. Patients should also make sure to discuss any marijuana use with their doctors. In Michigan, Commissioner Bruner left us with this piece of information: "Doctors' certifications can be obtained for as low as $50, and the state registration fee of $60 is reduced to $25 for those receiving medical assistance."

For more information on the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program (as it is still currently the only way to legally purchase cannabis), visit the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) website.

Aaron Anderson is an activist, consultant, and former talk show host. Aaron is also co-founder of ARISE (Association of Refugees, Immigrants, and Survivors of Human Trafficking Engage). He is from Cleveland and is now living in Detroit.