What to do with an outdated downtown filling station? Garth Bolgos has a plan: give it a new identity, put up a sign, and open a medical marijuana dispensary.
Bolgos owns the dilapidated gas station at the corner of Liberty and Second. He’s working with Renee Wolf, multiple sclerosis patient and longtime proselytizer for medical marijuana. They envision a place where MS patients and other registered medical marijuana users can meet with their caregivers to obtain their herbal medication.
There’s just one problem: the Michigan Department of Community Health says that, even though a 2008 vote made the use of medical marijuana legal in Michigan, marijuana dispensaries aren’t.
Bolgos, fifty-nine, grew up working on his family’s dairy farm just north of Ann Arbor. By age eight, he was helping with the milking, filling pails that would steam on a cold day. He still has a scar on his left hand where a horse kicked him while he was shoeing it. He drove a milk truck, making deliveries for Bolgos Dairy, and worked in the family’s restaurant on Plymouth Road. But eventually the property taxes were too much, and the 105-year-old business was mournfully sold.
After that Bolgos purchased, rehabbed, and resold Ann Arbor houses. In 1990, he bought Fred Roberts’ Sunoco station. But small service stations are dying out, and the building’s been vacant since 2007.
Last May, Bolgos attended a local seminar sponsored by California’s “Oaksterdam University,” whose motto is “Quality training for the cannabis industry.” Shortly thereafter, a friend with MS told him medical marijuana patients were having serious problems finding good analgesic weed. No stranger to marijuana himself, he saw a way to help people while finding a new use for his empty building.
Since then, he’s been focused on putting all his bureaucratic ducks in line: requesting permits and papers, filing with the state, waiting for his caregiver card, talking with his lawyer and the mayor, fixing and fussing. It’s kept him focused, if not obsessed, and has filled him with a sense of excitement. He sees a dispensary not just as a business but as a humanitarian gesture.
Wolf has used marijuana to manage her MS for twenty-five years. When she was arrested for growing her own in 1994, she tried to plead medical necessity–the first person in the state to do so. Now that she’s registered as a medical marijuana patient and Bolgos is a registered caregiver, he is allowed to share some of his “Goody’s Super-strain” with her. He says he’s seen her unable to walk, but then, after smoking a pipe of “skunk,” get up and move around.
In Michigan, marijuana can be prescribed for any of nine specific conditions and for other illnesses and treatments that produce “debilitating” symptoms. Wolf qualifies because she suffers from muscle spasms caused by her MS. She didn’t know of a local doctor who would write her a prescription for marijuana, so she got a “letter of recommendation” from a sympathetic physician in Oregon. With that she was able to apply to the State of Michigan for recognition as a medical marijuana patient and name a caregiver–a person designated to grow marijuana on her behalf. Since there are a wide variety of types of cannabis with a broad range of effects, caregivers work with patients to determine the strain they find most healing or restorative.
There’s already a model of sorts in Ypsilanti, where Jackson resident Anthony Freed has opened a dispensary at the corner of Pearl and Hamilton. It’s also the headquarters of the Michigan Marijuana Chamber of Commerce–Freed, thirty-one, is executive director. Both Freed and his partner, Darrell Stavros, come to work in neat blue suits and ties, coats buttoned. There are also two security guards and a receptionist-building manager. In his office, with a couple of Behr paint cans atop a single file cabinet, Freed explains the MMCC’s goals: “We want to do as much for the state as possible, while protecting the patient and caregiver’s rights.” He says marijuana could revitalize Michigan’s agriculture, and empty factories could be put to work producing hemp products.
According to people posting on michiganmedicalmarijuana.org, the Ypsi facility is set up as a club, with membership costing $12 a year and varieties of pot priced at $15-$20 a gram. One customer reports buying “a few grams of my meds”–and a chocolate brownie for $7, “which I thought was steep but it did its thing.”
That’s consistent with the way dispensaries operate in California, selling marijuana and foods laced with the herb to approved patients. But, according to Department of Community Health spokesperson James McCurtis, “since the law in Michigan does not address dispensaries or offer any regulating system for them, the Michigan Department of Community Health interprets the law as saying that it is illegal to operate a marijuana dispensary. In addition, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, and it is illegal to buy and sell.”
Mayor John Hieftje is being cautious, too. “The legal process is slow. There’s no enabling legislation. We can’t act independently of Lansing, and the situation’s being looked at.” Looking amused, he adds, “It’s a puzzle we haven’t figured out.”
Longtime local attorney Dennis Hayes disagrees. “No such enabling ordinance is necessary,” he wrote in an analysis he drafted for Bolgos. He cites Ann Arbor’s local medical marijuana charter amendment, which voters approved back in 2004: “Fines and all other costs shall be waived upon proof that the defendant is recommended by a physician, practitioner or other qualified health professional to use or provide the marijuana or cannabis for medical treatment.”
While Bolgos doesn’t like the way the state law is structured, he says that it’s “better than having no law at all.” He feels that the people have spoken and the state legislature deliberately made the implementing law vague. So whatever Lansing says, he’s continuing to fix up his gas station, with the goal of opening June 1.
In January, five-gallon buckets placed beneath the roof leaks were solid with frozen water. But the roof had just been fixed, and Bolgos and Wolf were full of plans.
They say the high-ceiling repair bay will be closed off and scientifically ventilated as a private place for patients to “medicate.” A built-in vault will store the product during closing hours. There’s talk of adding a second story, and, perhaps in 2011, a van to deliver dope to homebound patients.
After defending “a large number” of marijuana cases over the years, Hayes, sixty-nine, is excited about its new, medicinal legitimacy. “It is the lame who are spearheading the movement,” Hayes says, “and it’s ironic that it has taken the seriously ill and infirm to open the public’s eyes to the blindness and hypocrisy of our political leaders.” He pulls out a reprint from the Los Angeles Times headlined “Pot is called biggest cash crop.” Citing a 2006 analysis by a supporter of legalization, the article reported: “Nationwide, the estimated cannabis production of $35.8 billion exceeds corn ($23 billion), soybeans ($17.6 billion) and hay ($12.2 billion).”
By that standard, Bolgos’s financial needs seem modest: he figures he needs about $80,000 to bring the place up to standards. He hopes to borrow the money, putting his other property up as collateral. A business plan is “in progress,” but he likes to use the word “nonprofit” to describe what he’s creating. “I just want to cover costs,” he says. “If there’s anything left over, it’ll be reinvested in finding better product.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the January 2010 Ann Arbor Observer; Anthony Freed’s first name was corrected.