Smoke Signals

A man rolling a cannabis joint.

Most evenings, Richard Clement, also known as the weed warrior, is busy serving people who flock to a compassion club tucked in the shadow of Comerica Park in downtown Detroit.

As the club’s “bud tender,” it’s his job to ensure patients who gather around the bar or settle into a black L-sectional get their desired variety of medical cannabis to treat health conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, and other ailments that cause severe or chronic pain.

“Instead of making you a Bloody Mary or a rum and Coke, I’m picking out an OG Kush or Blue Dream, Mango Tango or Purple Haze mixed with God Bud. There are so many strains: Sour Diesel, Power 13, Obama Strain, the Alabama Thunder ‘F@#k,’” says the 55-year-old who also is a marijuana advocate and lobbyist. “I give them a jar and let them pick the strain. They know what they want.”

These days, it seems lots of people want marijuana, and that it’s everywhere-in news headlines, music, television shows such as Showtime’s “Weeds,” presidential politics, bestselling books, the Olympics and even the National Football League.

In separate incidents earlier this year, three rookie Detroit Lions players-Nick Fairley, Mikel Leshoure and Johnny Culbreath-were charged with possessing marijuana, and American judo fighter Nicholas Delpopolo was dismissed from the 2012 Summer Olympics games for testing positive for it. Three years ago, USA Swimming penalized most-decorated Olympian Michael Phelps after a photograph was released of the athlete smoking from a bong.


Here in Detroit, since the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed in 2009, it seems cannabis and its culture has gained a new level of prominence and stature.

Along well-traveled thoroughfares such as Eight Mile Road, a plethora of certification centers and hydroponic garden shops have popped up like dandelions. With abundant offerings for smokers such as Philly Blunts, Grape Cigarillos, Zig Zag rolling papers, and vaporizers readily available at convenience stores and smoke shops, there’s no doubt Detroit’s underground market also is thriving.

In November, Detroit voters will decide if city residents can legally possess an ounce of marijuana in their private homes-whether they are medically certified or not.

New opportunities

It looks as though cannabis, also known as the sticky icky, Mary Jane, Chronic, fire and a host of other nicknames, is moving closer to being handled similarly to alcohol and tobacco-government-regulated and used “responsibly” by adults.

Yet, as some metro Detroiters create six-figure incomes, open hydro supply stores, farm crops or like Clement tend bud, there’s also a growing concern that African Americans are not actively participating in the movement and are being left out of the new legal streams of income and protections.

“I hope this doesn’t end up being like what happened with the neighborhood liquor stores,” says Clement. “Look who owns them. We use them every day, but we are not getting any of the economic benefits.”

The Coalition for a Safer Detroit launched the initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession in 2010 and collected enough signatures, but the city's election commission, led by Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, failed to include the measure on the ballot because it said the proposal conflicted with state law. In February, the coalition took the issue to Michigan Court of Appeals and won.

The city appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court in June, which upheld the decision.

Critics, such as Detroit City Council member Kenneth Cockrel Jr., say the Detroit City Marijuana Decriminalization Question may encourage more residents to use marijuana and cause them to fail employment-related drug tests.

Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee says he would enforce the state law even if the ordinance passed, and Sgt. Eren Stephens told local media the DPD would respect the new law "if it's handled in an
appropriate way, and this is what the citizens of Detroit choose.”

Since the state legalized medical marijuana use, activists, caregivers, patients, lawyers and other citizens seeking information began meeting to discuss their concerns in groups known as “compassion clubs.”

Chuck Jones is one of the five co-founders of the New Detroit Compassion Club, which has about 70 members.

“When the law passed a lot of activity was going on outside of the city, in the suburbs,” Jones says. “We founded the group because we wanted to get information to our community.”

Jones and his peers started the group in October 2009 to discuss political, legal and social topics, such as how members can become certified to possess and grow marijuana while complying with the law.

He says the group's predominantly African-American demographic has different concerns than some of their mostly-White peers in the suburban compassion clubs. “We come from an urban area so we have more interaction with the police,” he explains.

A medical marijuana patient, Jones says he uses the plant to avoid the negative side effects of pharmaceuticals to treat a chronic pain condition.

“It helps manage my pain so I don’t have to take as much medication as before,” he says.

Legislation and the War on Drugs

For Clement, marijuana legalization is a social and political issue.
Clement says African Americans are underrepresented in his organization, Michigan NORML, though the criminalization of marijuana disproportionately impacts the Black community.

“This issue is dear to the African-American community, but there’s skepticism about joining movements supporting the legalization of marijuana because of the lack of diversity,” Clement says.

As an Alabama State University student in the 1970s, Clement used the drug recreationally and for stress relief, but he now views the drug as a valuable cash crop that could help generate jobs, stimulate the economy and keep Black men out of prison.
Drug offenses create barriers to employment, education and housing, Clement says.

He also says cannabis could play a significant role in Detroit’s urban agricultural movement, and can compete with the cotton, paper, and oil industries to make durable cloth, less expensive paper and bio-diesel fuel.

Many of his peers in the marijuana legislation movement, have looked to Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” to understand how the war on drugs, which includes the criminalization of marijuana, represents the top cause behind the systematic incarceration of Black people.

The book contends that convictions for drug offenses represent the most important cause for the nation’s explosive incarceration rates, making the U.S. a global leader in locking up its citizens per capita. Alexander says drug arrests have increased by 1,100 percent since 1980.

Despite the state’s medical marijuana laws, last year in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, police arrested more than 8,100 people, primarily for possessing and selling marijuana, said Michigan State Police spokesperson Shannon Banner. While the state doesn’t provide a racial breakdown of the people arrested, statistics consistently show a disproportionate number of African Americans arrested, convicted and incarcerated on drug charges.

That’s why Ron Klug, a 62-year-old advocate who runs a compassion club in Detroit, says people are less likely to have run-ins with the law if they become a caregiver or a patient with a qualified medical condition.

“A person is a lot better off with a medical marijuana card,” he says. “We have attorneys come in and talk to groups about Michigan’s Medical Marijuana Act to avoid getting caught up.”

Legalization Attempts

Earlier this year, Clement and his activist peers collected signatures for the 2012 Michigan Ballot Initiative to End Marijuana Prohibition, a statewide effort to legalize the cannabis plant. The collective called it quits in July after securing less than half of the required 322,609 signatures needed to put the issue on the November ballot.

The Committee for a Safer Michigan, the group sponsoring the initiative, says it plans to renew its efforts again in 2014. Its proponents argue prohibition has made it easier for teenagers to obtain the plant, increased profits for drug cartels in Mexico, and wasted valuable law enforcement and municipal resources.

Ever since the medical marijuana became legal, city, state and federal authorities have clashed on interpreting the law. 

In May, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the state’s medical marijuana law protected patients even if they lack a state-issued medical marijuana card, and in August, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that cities and townships could not enforce local laws that punish medical marijuana users because those policies were pre-empted by state law. The decision came after Birmingham, Livonia and other cities enacted ordinances that punished registered patients and caregivers.

Nationwide, other states have re-examined their stance on the drug. In November, Arkansas and Massachusetts medical marijuana initiatives will be featured on ballots while Colorado and Washington State will consider legalizing possession of small quantities of marijuana for recreational use.

President Barack Obama and his political opponent Mitt Romney support marijuana prohibition, though many pundits say both candidates have largely avoided the issue in this year’s campaign.

Helpful or Harmful?

Researchers, doctors and social workers often contradict each other, leaving some people confused about marijuana’s ability to cause harm.

The National Cancer Institute listed marijuana as a viable alternative treatment in 2011, and many patients use it to reduce nausea caused by chemotherapy.

Perry “Dr. Make-It-Rite" Winfrey, 39, founder and owner of MMM Patient ID Center, a certification hub with offices in Royal Oak and Mt. Clemens, says some marijuana users, especially teens, lack education about marijuana types and how they affect the body. They also tend to use marijuana without knowing the origins and complete contents, he says.

Marijuana users should understand the types and strands and how they will affect them, says Winfrey, whose patients include “Foolish,” a comedian, cancer survivor and popular WJLB-FM radio personality.

Staying Up, Going Down

For instance, Indica, which has a higher THC count, relaxes the patient and alleviates issues like back spasms, Winfrey says. Sativa marijuana, on the other hand, works better for patients seeking to maintain a higher energy level due to its lower THC content.

After being diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer in July 2011, Twoquala Stevens, 39, began using cannabis to alleviate nausea and pain. She also uses the plant to help sustain her appetite, a common challenge for cancer patients.

“As a younger person I was a recreational user, but as I got older, my reasons changed-especially when I received my cancer diagnosis,” says the Detroiter. “I rely on it to feel better.”

She smokes marijuana and eats potent edible cookies, brownies and Rice Krispie treats.

“I’m a Sativa person during the day because I still like to be up and moving around [and] I’m more of an Indica person in the evening, when its time to settle down and go to bed,” Stevens says. 

As part of her treatment, Stevens had a mastectomy of her right breast and received routine chemotherapy and radiation. Stevens says her decision has been without conflict-her pain clinic doctor opposes her decision and said he would not prescribe narcotics if he found marijuana in her system. But Stevens is undeterred.

She says she tried medications like morphine, but stopped because she loathed the side effects.

“I had to get off of them because they made me feel horrible.

That’s not my thing,” Stevens says. “They don’t help me because I can barely function if I take them every four to six hours as directed.”

While in remission, Stevens also uses Tamoxifen, a popular hormone therapy medication used to treat breast cancer.

In her spare time, she’s an active member of the Wayne Washtenaw Compassion Club, which she joined to network and learn about marijuana-related legislation.

Steven says she would use marijuana for medical purposes, even if Michigan lacked a law to protect her decision.

“I don’t care either way,” Stevens says. “Being able to understand the law clearly is important. It makes for good education when you know what you’re up against.”

Cannabis and Health

One thing smokers don’t appear to be up against is lung cancer or function issues, according to recently released research. University of Alabama researcher Stefan Kertesz made headlines earlier this year when he published research stating that cannabis use did not affect lung function.

Noted pulmonologist and professor, Dr. Donald Tashkin, of the University of California, Los Angeles, has conducted studies confirming that smoking the plant does not lead to lung cancer.

Tashkin, who has studied marijuana and its impact on the lungs since the 1970s, says that THC, the active ingredient in marijuana can dilate the airway, rather than constricted it.

He also contends that the drug does not lead to what some people refer to as “amotivational syndrome,” a condition the World Health

Organization says doesn’t exist. Tashkin tells B.L.A.C. that there’s no evidence that supports that marijuana use leads to brain cell loss, though other scientific studies beg to differ.

A More Potent Plant?

Debates loom surrounding the potency of the drug today compared with the marijuana of yore.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says today's marijuana is far more potent than the versions that circulated decades ago, but marijuana legalization advocates such as the Drug Policy Alliance claim assertions about increased potency are overstated.
As with any drug, there may be many adverse effects like addiction, especially among heavy habitual users, Tashkin says. Most researchers agree that marijuana causes short-term memory loss and impairment.

Judith A. Killom, a retired drug abuse treatment counselor and a volunteer therapist at Oakland Church of Christ’s counseling center in Southfield, has treated teenagers and adults for marijuana abuse since 1990s.

She notes marijuana has a reputation for being harmless and that people downplay its role in its users’ social dysfunction.
Because it’s not associated with death, overdose or severe withdrawal symptoms such as “hard drugs” like cocaine and heroin, she says people consider cannabis as a “soft drug” whose use has little to no consequences.

“A drug is a drug is a drug,” Killom says. “Entertainers come out and say that they’re using it. They talk about it in their songs. They talk about getting high and they give that message to adolescents.

“It’s very deceiving. In our culture, we make things look good.”


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