January 18, 2012 - "Vindicated."
Johnson (click for larger version)
That's how Barbara Mira Johnson, 41, of Leonard, described how she felt about an Oakland County Circuit Court judge last week dismissing the 14 felony drug charges she was facing for working at a medical marijuana dispensary.
"I did nothing wrong," she said. "I would not accept a plea (deal)."
County prosecutors indicated they plan to appeal the dismissal, which involved Johnson and seven others.
Johnson was one of several employees who were arrested and jailed in August 2010 when officers with the Oakland County Narcotics Enforcement Team raided the Clinical Relief medical marijuana dispensary in Ferndale.
"We opened up that facility with the intention of running it like a normal clinic – a doctor's office for people that might be like you or your mother and father," said Johnson, who's a 1988 graduate of Oxford High School.
At the time of her arrest, Johnson, who was and still is registered with the state as both a primary caregiver and qualifying patient under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA), was operating under the belief that patient-to-patient transfers of medical marijuana were legal, therefore her actions at the dispensary were legal.
She admitted to providing medical marijuana to dispensary customers who possessed state registry cards, but to whom she was not specifically registered as their primary caregiver. She believed such transactions were legal because she too was registered with the state as a qualifying patient.
"Patient-to-patient transfers were legal whether they were your patient or not your patient," Johnson said.
It wasn't until August 2011 that the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that "medical use of marijuana, as defined by the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act, does not include patient-to-patient sales of marijuana, and no other provision of the MMMA can be read to permit such sales." That same ruling also declared all dispensaries to be illegal and called them a "public nuisance."
The attorneys representing Johnson and her fellow Clinical Relief employees argued the MMMA was ambiguous and the employees believed they were operating within the bounds of the law. The attorneys argued they were relying on various interpretations of the state law and assurances from Ferndale officials that what they were doing was okay.
"We did get authorization from the chief of police in Ferndale," Johnson said. "He did a walk-through in our facility, gave us the green light, loved our operation."
She said the dispensary received the same approval from Ferndale's mayor at the time.
"He came in, loved our facility," Johnson said. "We were not a head shop. You didn't see any bongs or things of that nature."
She noted how the dispensary did its best to follow the law and ensure all of the patients who visited it did as well.
"They had to sign an agreement with us stating that they would not do anything illegal," Johnson said. "They agreed not to smoke (marijuana) and drive. There was no smoking in the facility (or) in the parking lot. We took every precaution to do it the right way."
"Yes, we knew it was going to be risky and that's why we took the precautions that we did to make sure that we were doing it right and not breaking the law," she noted.
Johnson said the police and county prosecutor's office tried to turn what was happening at the dispensary into "something it wasn't."
"Despite the fact they knew Ferndale gave us the thumbs up and everything was on the up-and-up, they needed an example," she said. "Oakland County was making it sound like we were some sort of (drug) cartel in there and we were making all this money, when in fact, we were just measly employees making $10 an hour caring for people."
Johnson started working behind the counter at the dispensary as a "consultant" in June 2010.
"I took that position because I wanted to help others like my mother – good people," she said. "I would say 85 percent of the clientele there were legitimate people that needed help. So, that's why I took that job at $10 an hour."
It was her mother's medical situation that initially got Johnson involved with medical marijuana. Her mother suffered a "severe stroke" that left her "withering away to nothing" after a lifetime of being a "positive, active woman."
"She was skin on bones," Johnson said.
Johnson indicated that two of her mother's doctors recommended medical marijuana as a way to increase her appetite and get her the nutrition she needed.
"It saved my mother's life," she said.
Johnson had hoped working at the dispensary would allow her to help others like her mother and earn a living as she was laid off at the time and her eligibility for unemployment benefits had recently expired.
Instead, the job resulted in her arrest.
Getting "hauled off to jail for three days" and not being able to "comprehend why" was "devastating," Johnson said.
"I have never had something as traumatic happen to me as I did when I was put in jail," she said.
But jail was only the beginning.
Over the next year-and-a-half, she dealt with on-going stress from being involved with the court system and mounting legal bills, which she estimated to be approximately $100,000.
"It left me destitute for several months and if I didn't have the help of my family and friends, I would have lost everything. I would have lost my home. I would have lost everything," Johnson said. "It was horrific and I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy."
Despite everything she went through, Johnson said giving up her legal fight was not an option.
"They could have thrown 50 charges my way and they would have all been bogus," she said.
Johnson noted how the undercover police officers who posed at the dispensary as qualifying patients under the MMMA used forged state medical marijuana registry cards. This was a fact admitted by law enforcement officials.
"They do not believe in medical marijuana, period," she said. "They look at it as marijuana and it is a federal crime."
Although she does believe, based on personal experience as both a caregiver and patient, that medical marijuana can help people who truly need it, Johnson also agrees with law enforcement officials that there are plenty of folks operating dispensaries who don't care about aiding others.
"I do believe that the majority out there are in it for the wrong reasons – for the dollar and it sickens me inside," she said. "I recommend that all those out there that are in it for the dollar, the greed and the profit, should think twice because you could be killing people by taking shortcuts – using chemicals as opposed to all-natural ingredients. I am completely, 100 percent against that. They should be ashamed of themselves."
Johnson suggested that law enforcement authorities focus on the doctors out there who, for a fee, recommend people to the state as having a legitimate need for medical marijuana, even if they do not have one.
"That is wrong," she said.
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.