Michigan NORML’s new director is all about protecting the caregiver system

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Rick Thompson, was named Michigan NORML’s new executive director last week.

Last week Michigan NORML elected a new board of directors and a new executive director. Rick Thompson, a cannabis activist and host of the video podcast, The Jazz Cabbage Cafe, steps in to replace attorney Matt Abel, who led the organization for ten years.

Grown In caught up with Thompson to learn about his goals for the organization and perspective on some of the state’s bigger cannabis conflicts.

This interview was edited for grammar and clarity.

Grown In: Cannabis is legal in Michigan. It’s normal for people to consume it. So what’s the purpose of Michigan NORML today?

Rick Thompson: Cannabis consumers have never needed competent representation more than they need it today. With the advent of big business, interests, and  legislation that moves very quickly, cannabis advocates and cannabis consumers are often left out of the conversation. Laws evolve quickly. And if you’re not sitting in the room when it happens, oftentimes you’re complaining about it afterwards. And that’s the position most cannabis consumers find themselves in. NORML on a national basis, and Michigan, on the statewide level, is the most widely recognized cannabis consumer advocacy organization and is the leader in sticking up for the little guy in America. 

Grown In: The Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency has expressed interest in merging the medical and adult-use systems. One concern Michigan activists have had is that by opening up licensing laws you risk changes to the caregiver system. How do you view that?

Thompson: It’s possible to merge the two regulatory frameworks without exposing the voter-directed initiatives to a lot of manipulation by the legislature. It would be more difficult to do but it’s possible. The pathway that typical legislation follows in Michigan is one of compromise and self-interest. So we are very concerned that any bill that might start out even well-intended can by its end of life be very destructive. Because we’ve seen that happen time and time again during the medical marijuana era in Michigan. So it’s possible to merge the two licensing systems for businesses while not altering the regulations that affect cannabis consumption, cultivation, or transfer.

Grown In: But if it came down to risking opening up the existing laws that could risk the caregiver system. Michigan NORML would be in favor of just not opening it up at all. Is that correct?

Thompson: Well, the system works pretty well the way it is right now. So, if we have to risk potentially damaging the caregiver system, which by the way, is the only protection pediatric patients and their parents have in Michigan. So, the caregiver system is the only place ill children can find cannabis-style medicines legally, and use them. So if we destroy the caregiver system, we hurt all those children and we are not in favor of hurting children, not at Michigan NORML.

Grown In: A recent study sponsored by the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association, I’m sure you know the one, showed that the state’s underground cannabis economy is booming. But in fact other national studies suggest MCMA’s sponsored study underestimates the size of the underground economy. Is the underground cannabis economy a problem, or is this just a fact of life that everyone should just get used to?

Thompson: Well, the underground cannabis economy isn’t a problem. It’s the norm in America. Let’s remember the regulated system in Michigan is an option for most cannabis consumers. It’s not their only choice. So the regulated system can best defend itself by providing quality service, quality medicine, to people at an affordable price.

But it’s important to recognize that the underground market isn’t booming. It’s already been this large. Remember the entire amount of cannabis consumed was at one time in the unregulated market. 

The regulated market is slowly peeling some of the unregulated business away. And that’s the goal of regulation, to slowly bring people from the unregulated market into the regulated market. But I think it’s a misnomer to say that the illegal market is booming. In fact, the illegal market is about $170 million lighter in Michigan in the month of July. I wouldn’t call that a boom for the illicit market. I call that a big kick in the balls.

Grown In: You’re assuming that it actually is peeling away from the underground economy. There’s no evidence to show that it is peeling away from the economy. In fact it could be just as much that it is adding to the existing cannabis economy. How do you come to the conclusion that it’s actually peeling away?

Thompson: I think when you evaluate retailers and look at the experience that they have with customers, they’ll tell you that most people that walk in the retail store are already experienced cannabis consumers. There are a few people that come into the store and are experiencing cannabis for the first time. But, most folks that utilize the retail market, at least in Michigan, are people that have been using cannabis for a number of years. So these are folks that have traditionally given their money to the unregulated market and are just experimenting with the regulated market as an option to see if it fits their needs.

Grown In: A limited number of all of Michigan’s municipalities have opted-in to allow licensed cannabis businesses, and that’s made license location a bigger issue than getting a license at all. How do you think this can be changed?

Thompson: Regulated industry needs to reach out to municipalities in order to convince them that accepting cannabis businesses is good for their industry. Having municipalities adopt pro-business laws is the responsibility of the business community, not the responsibility of the consumer community. Consumers, in those particular situations are for the most part already taken care of pretty well. And, in fact, the Anderson Economic Group, just released a study that says, most consumers in Michigan live within twenty minutes of a regulated facility. So, consumers already have access to both the unregulated and regulated market. Convincing municipalities to add more businesses that’s on businesses’ shoulders, not NORML’s.

Grown In: So, what’s the next best thing for the machine cannabis regulators to do? 

Thompson: I think the most important thing for Michigan cannabis regulators to do is to reach out and involve cannabis consumers in conversations that traditionally have excluded them. For example, we see committees formed where the constitution is all attorneys, a representative of business, or folks that have some sort of a vested industry connection. And there really isn’t a seat at the table for a Michigan NORML, or a Michigan United Caregivers Association or a Michigan ASA [Americans for Safe Access] Chapter. 

I think the most important thing they can do is to reach out to consumers. And remember that not only are they responsible for issuing business licenses often but also responsible for the health and wellness of all of the state’s cannabis consumers. And not just those who are registered. 

Grown In: Is there anything else you think I ought to know?

Thompson: There’s a rally to show support for maintaining Michigan’s patient and caregiver laws as they currently are with no changes during this current legislative cycle. This is in direct response to the Michigan Candidates Manufacturers Association’s ploy to remove cultivation rights from caregivers and eventually patients and average adults in a sad bid to try and restore some sense of market relevance for their very small number of retail members.