Outside Macomb County Circuit Court Thursday, medical marijuana protesters gripped signs with slogans like "Fight crime, not sick people" and "It's my right to a quality of life!"
They passionately chanted phrases, such as "Safer than the streets;" "Who's law? My law!" and "Vote green."
Inside the Mount Clemens courthouse that afternoon, Chesterfield Township and the Michigan Attorney General's Office tried to a make a case that Big Daddy's Hydroponics should be shut down on grounds it violates township ordinances and is a public nuisance. Among its roles, Big Daddy's serves as a medical marijuana dispensary, also referred to as a compassion center.
"I believe that the commercial compassion club is not something we want in the township," Chesterfield Township Police Chief Bruce Smith said of Big Daddy's during lengthy testimony in the civil trial before Judge John Foster.
Dispensaries find controversy
A main focal point of the evidentiary hearing was the legal interpretation of the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act passed in November 2008. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a recent news release announcing his involvement in this case that, "local governments have the right to protect their communities from illegal marijuana dispensaries." Assistant Attorney General John R. Wright was present during the hearing to question witnesses.
Meanwhile, protesters Thursday said they felt strongly the act allowed them to utilize dispensaries like Big Daddy's for their medical marijuana needs to help with chronic pain.
"The importance of this case, to me, is that patients should be able to get medicine in a safe manner wherever they choose because the Constitution gives you the freedom of choice and it should be a right to have a quality of life," said medical marijuana cardholder Terry Marentette, 55 of West Branch.
She joined dozens of other protesters because she says medical marijuana has helped alleviate pain from fibromyalgia and other health issues. It's a better alternative than popping several prescription pills daily with uncomfortable side effects, she said.
Medical marijuana activist Robert J. Garner, who's also known as Monkey Pa, said he started using cannabis oil during his previous battle with prostate cancer. He said that this case represents the ability for patients to have safe access to marijuana when they are not able to grow it themselves at home.
"Big Daddy's is supporting sick people every day," Garner, 62 of Mount Clemens, said. "We need to support Big Daddy's."
Michigan Medical Marijuana Magazine Editor and Big Daddy’s board member Rick Thompson said, "This protest represents the best opportunity for medical marijuana patients to get justice from a court system that seems to have a hard time finding it.
"But beyond that, this is my livelihood at stake," Thompson said.
Chesterfield Township's lawyer Colleen O'Connor of Seibert & Dloski law firm in Clinton Township declined to comment on the case for this story.
Court hearing brings chief, officer to stand
The court hearing Thursday centered largely on Smith, who testified that Big Daddy's owner Rick Ferris and others from the business met with township officials in late spring 2010. Among the top cop's concerns: Limited patient-to-caregiver ratio didn't seem feasible with the expected clientele, patients allowed to smoke pot in the facility may not have transportation home and crime rates in the community could rise because of the business.
After the township expressed reluctance, Ferris told officials, "Don't try to enact some phony law to keep us from coming here because we're coming in," Smith recalled.
Township police learned that Big Daddy's had indeed set up shop soon after. And, on Dec. 6, 2010, an ordinance banning dispensaries in the community was passed and officially adopted the following month. Big Daddy's argues it didn't need to adhere to the township ordinance that wasn't on the books when the business opened in summer 2010.
Ferris, also known as Big Daddy, said after the hearing, "I still believe that from Day One we were there legally."
Ferris, who says he is also a medical marijuana cardholder, is named as defendant in the suit with wife Sue Ferris, landlord Pasquele Acciavatti and Big Daddy's Management Group. Big Daddy's Oak Park location was forced to close down a few months ago following pending drug possession and conspiracy criminal charges for the Ferrises and two other associates after the Oakland County Sheriff's Office raided the facility.
When Chesterfield Township police officer Harry Otal took the stand, Big Daddy's Royal Oak-based lawyer James Rasor accused township attorney O'Connor of conducting improper discovery for the lawsuit through police officers who stopped clients of the dispensary. O'Connor denied doing so and the judge told Rasor he would have to file a separate complaint if he wished to pursue that matter outside the hearing.
During the officer's testimony, Otal said he posed as an authorized medical marijuana patient to get inside Big Daddy's, where he was allowed to buy six grams of pot for $55 to help relieve chronic back pain. Although he witnessed people inside the building smoking weed, he did not know if they were legitimate cardholders and did not know if the woman who distributed the marijuana was an authorized medical marijuana caregiver. He acknowledged the business checked his documents before offering him membership to the facility.
Smith also said he did not have first-hand knowledge of illegal activity inside the business, but emphasized the company's presence could be deemed illegal for violating zoning laws.
In other court happenings, O'Connor served subpoenas to three witnesses for the hearing, including Thompson, while they sat in the courtroom to watch the case unfold. Meanwhile, Rasor said he subpoenaed a lawyer from her firm to give testimony for unspecified reasons. The case is scheduled to resume at 8:30 a.m. Friday.