F.A.N.G. Closing Down Flint Dispensaries In Last Minute Cash Grab? [OPINION]
When we moved here in the fall of 2014 one of the first things that caught my eye in Genesee County was the plethora of green crosses. To anyone "in the know" it is the universal sign for medical marijuana. Coming from a college town in Wisconsin we were used to seeing headlines in the local paper about marijuana busts on campus. So to move to a place where the exact same substance is legal for qualified medical patients was a bit jarring.
Now I would like to state that I am a full-blown supporter of the medical marijuana program in Michigan. I have a mother-in-law, AJ's mom, that has suffered from multiple sclerosis her entire life. I also have a father in law who is fighting cancer. Both of them would have preferred to use the pain relief of marijuana for their symptoms but unfortunately live in a state where they could be criminally prosecuted for it. Instead they have been on a steady stream of narcotic pills for years. And trust me it's scary to see when they have to treat their chronic pain and end up making themselves a zombie in the process. But alas their home state of Wisconsin does not seem to be on any sort of path to allow them access to a plant. Meanwhile, the Michigan Medical Marijuana Program (MMMP) has been in effect here since 2008.
Essentially patients see a doctor who gives them a certification that they are indeed qualified for the program, they send in a fee to the state, receive their medical marijuana card in the mail and now have access legally to the plant. If you are like most MMMP patients you would probably prefer to purchase your product from a professional grower. Although you are allowed under the law to grow your own, up to 12 plants, not everyone is a trained horticulturalist! You are also allowed to have a qualified caregiver grow for you. This one caregiver can have a maximum of five patients. This is where the states law gets blurry. There is no writing about dispensaries. Yet the state has seen hundreds of them pop up in various townships. Cities such as Flint and Detroit have even licensed the dispensaries. But just like the federal government does not recognize Michigan's medical marijuana program, apparently certain law enforcement groups in the state choose to disregard it as well.
Genesee county has been described as one of the friendliest counties in the state for the MMMP. But that title will now be surrendered to another county, at least if local prosecutors and law-enforcement have their way. Over the past few months multiple dispensaries have been raided by a group called F.A.N.G. Which is short for the Flint Area Narcotics Group, a multi-jurisdictional drug team organized through the Michigan State Police.
F.A.N.G. has been producing cases against local medical marijuana dispensaries and presenting them to the Genesee County Prosecutors Office. In the process they have raided dispensaries such as Hardcore Harvest in Montrose, Clio Caregiver Connection in Clio and Hemphill Wellness in Burton. These three locally owned businesses are now shuttered after having all of their product seized along with assets as well.
I had a chance to talk to Lindsay Price, who was an employee at Hemphill Wellness, and she noted that while employees and patients were arrested in raids, some spending upwards of 36 hours in county jail, all of them were released with no charges filed but a PFI, which according to Price, stands for Pending Further Investigation. In each of these instances F.A.N.G. has sent in a legal medical marijuana patient to purchase products from the dispensary. Then since the dispensary is not the defined caregiver for the undercover patient, F.A.N.G. comes in and shuts down the operation.
Now there have been off-the-cuff remarks from lawyers representing the various dispensaries involved that the Genesee County Prosecutors Office is looking towards a goal of a dispensary free Genesee County. There has also been speculation that F.A.N.G. is looking for one last cash grab since November there will be another initiative when you go vote to legalize marijuana in Michigan for recreational purposes. Essentially if that vote goes through -- all forms of marijuana would be legal for folks over the age of 21. Which would, outside of the same violations that would apply to party stores, decapitate any opportunity for raids. Which would mean no more assets forfeited in said raids. Now again, these are just a lot of conspiracies floating around. And while I reached out to F.A.N.G., I did not receive a response back. So there is no way to debunk these claims but also no way to prove them. Regardless of tinfoil hat theories, something is definitely up in the air!
And here's why I think all of this is such a huge mess! It is no mystery that law-enforcement agencies depend on drug arrests and seizures for funding. They have been since back in the Nixon era and the war on drugs launch. And as always once you start getting funding, it's hard to not get it. So it is definitely no shock that most law enforcement agencies oppose any sort of legalization of marijuana. I have to assume that's going to cut down majorly on marijuana arrests, raids and seizures of assets. So in a sense, while I may not agree with it, I definitely "get" it. If you think an opportunity for federal funding is going to evaporate with a new state law why not get in while the getting is still good. (For reference F.A.N.G. seized nearly $109,000 in 2013 and $318,000 in 2014 according to the state's asset forfeiture report. That's quite the jump!) Now some folks may say that dispensary owners are taking the risk by opening up when they know they are operating in a legal gray zone. And I also totally agree with that! I have a coworker whose wife is looking to invest $250,000 of personal income into the marijuana industry. But won't do it yet because she considers the state laws, federal laws and regulations too blurry to interpret to risk a loss of that amount of money. But for every person like her who is sitting back on the sidelines waiting, there are entrepreneurs, or as you could call them ganjapreneurs, that are leading the charge and are willing to show what a legal and regulated industry could look like. But unfortunately I have to assume they know the risk as well. And finally, I feel as though the local townships and cities are most likely to blame for all this nonsense. Why would a city like Burton allow Hemphill Wellness to open yet then back up F.A.N.G. when they raided the location? (Price stated that while Burton Police were present they did not participate in the raid.) It seems as though the cities have no problem accepting tax revenue from these businesses as long as they last. The old "turn a blind eye" routine. I would give Burton a bigger pass if they had objected to the opening of Hemphill Wellness. But they were perfectly OK with it up until another lawn enforcement group told them that they weren't. So just like the layers of bureaucracy when it comes to state law versus federal law Michigan is now facing it's own civil war within the law enforcement community over medical marijuana.
And why does this get my goat you ask? Because dare I say law enforcement have better things to do! We have major problems in Genesee county, even outside of the Flint water crisis. I would rather law enforcement focus their time, energy and resources on other problems such as human trafficking, gun violence, the heroin epidemic, prostitution and prescription pill abuse. But instead an organized undercover operation was put into place to shut down to locally owned and regulated businesses. I suppose it's like shooting fish in a barrel from a police perspective! (Records show $40,000 was seized as part of the investigation at Hardcore Harvest. Plus a civil forfeiture case is also pending against them. Hemphill Wellness has stated that the funds seized from both of the raids against them have bankrupted the owners.)
Now I don't want anyone to think that I am bashing police, sheriffs or troopers. They have some of the toughest jobs in America! But they are also civil servants. The old saying could be true that you and I pay their salaries with our tax dollars. So call me crazy if I believe my tax dollars should focus on other law violations as opposed to a plant that we decided was OK for ill people to consume. Yeah, I suppose I am crazy.