When it came down to brass tacks, Farmington Hills Mayor Jerry Ellis just didn't want to break the law.
Along with council members Nancy Bates, Michael Bridges and Ken Massey, he voted against an ordinance that would have regulated caregivers who provide medical marijuana to patients with cards that allow them, under state law, to use a drug that is illegal under federal law.
Aside from traffic tickets and the theft (and almost immediate return) of a water gun when he was 8 years old, he said, "to the best of my knowledge, I have not broken any laws. And I'd like to keep it that way."
Officials have struggled to craft an ordinance since enacting a moratorium on medical marijuana-related activities in November of 2010. Farmington Hills officials and those in other communities began considering local ordinances after the passage of the state's Medical Marihuana Act in 2008, which allowed marijuana use by people with certain medical conditions and allowed caregivers to provide marijuana for up to five patients.
Initially, Hills officials considered a zoning ordinance that would prohibit land uses violating federal, state or local laws. That would have effectively banned medical marijuana-related businesses in the community. But concerns over violating the rights of caregivers, along with the shifting landscape around the issue statewide, led officials to table the proposed ordinance for further study.
The ordinance considered Monday night would have included the originally proposed ordinance and created a new zoning ordinance section that would regulate medical marijuana caregivers as a home occupation, said Dale Countegan, director of planning and community development.
The Hills Planning Commission recommended denial of the amendment on a 7-1 vote in June.
"The Planning Commission had seven different reasons why they decided to vote against it," he said, adding the commission was in favor of a total ban, which would have violated the Medical Marihuana Act.
Adding to the confusion around the issue, federal authorities recently issued a statement emphasizing that marijuana distribution is a violation of federal law and anyone is subject to prosecution. City Attorney Steve Joppich said, "They were very careful to say there are no guarantees at any level. Anyone is subject to prosecution."
In 2009, federal authorities issued a statement indicating government resources would not be used to prosecute anyone who was in compliance with the rules for medical marijuana use in states that allowed it. Joppich said the new "clarification" was, in his opinion, "worded a little bit stronger" with regard to prosecution.
Joppich also noted an appeal had been filed in a court case that officials had discussed in a previous meeting, and medical marijuana-related legislation is being proposed at the state and federal level.
He clarified that the proposed Hills ordinance did not grant residents the right to grow or distribute marijuana. "It's simply saying they will not be prosecuted," Joppich said.
The proposed ordinance also set eight conditions with which caregivers would have to comply, including adherence to state requirements and obtaining required electrical, plumbing and mechanical permits for the areas of the home in which medical marijuana is grown. Violations would be considered civil, not criminal.
Bates said she had studied cases of information, but "I cannot pass a law that allows you to do something that breaks the law." She felt the state needed to do its job in clarifying the murky issues surrounding medical marijuana.
"I cannot possibly support this," she said. "I just can't."
In response to a question posed by council member Randy Bruce, who supported the ordinance amendment, Joppich said with no specific ordinance to handle medical marijuana uses, the existing ordinance could be interpreted as allowing them.
"Where that winds the city up is an open-ended question," Joppich said. "We have an ordinance that doesn't clearly address the issue."
The current moratorium is in place until Sept. 8, and officials asked for another report on the issue in early September. Joppich said they could continue the moratorium until November, but he did not recommend having it in place for longer than a year.
"We are all on the same page ... we would like to provide relief from pain, if we could," Ellis said. "We just don't know how to get there. I've got a feeling whatever we do tonight is not the right decision."