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Politics

Leafly Investigation: The Great Cannabis Crime Lab Frame-Up

October 6, 2016

On the evening of September 24, 2014, Max Lorincz, a 35-year-old father living in Spring Lake, Michigan, discovered his wife passed out on the kitchen floor.

Erica Chittenden was barely breathing.

Lorincz called 911. Then he took the couple’s four-year-old son Dante to the boy’s room and told him to stay inside. Lorincz wanted to spare Dante the sight of his unconscious mother.

Paramedics arrived few minutes later. Patrick Gedeon, a deputy with the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department, also responded to the call.

The paramedics helped Erica Chittenden regain consciousness. They worked with Lorincz (pronounced Lawrence) to figure out what happened. Chittenden struggled with bipolar disorder, and might have suffered an overdose of prescribed anti-anxiety drugs.

Deputy Gedeon scanned the kitchen to see what Chittenden could have taken. He spotted a small plastic pill bottle. Inside was a smudge of sticky brown material.

“Is this what I think it is?” the deputy asked Lorincz.

“What do you think it is?”

“Marijuana concentrate. BHO.”

“Yes,” said Lorincz. “It’s my medicine. I have a medical marijuana card.”

While paramedics moved Chittenden to an ambulance, Deputy Gedeon placed the BHO container in an evidence bag. Then he called the local child protective services (CPS) office.

“The whole thing was a nightmare. I didn't understand how they could take our child away.”
Max Lorincz, Michigan medical cannabis patient

Lorincz didn’t register what the deputy was up to. When the CPS case worker arrived, Lorincz assumed she was there to help with his son while Lorincz followed his wife to North Ottawa Community Hospital.

But Gedeon had called CPS for a different, more distressing reason. Despite Max Lorincz’s state-issued medical marijuana card, Michigan law allows a police officer to proclaim a home a “drug house” if cannabis is used inside. When the CPS worker arrived, she removed Dante from his parents’ custody. The four-year-old boy spent the night with a foster family. Lorincz wasn’t arrested for cannabis that night. In effect, his four-year-old son was.

“The whole thing was a nightmare,” Lorincz later recalled. “I didn’t understand how they could take our child away.”

Max Lorincz’s nightmare was only beginning. His original 911 call set off a chain of events that would eventually result in his own arrest and an 18-month battle for custody of Dante. It would also reveal a statewide conspiracy to tamper with evidence, distort science, and falsify criminal charges–all in an effort to strip Michigan’s 180,000 medical marijuana patients of their legal right to medicine.

Medical cannabis is legal in 25 states. But not every state offers equal protection to patients. In places like Michigan, some law enforcement leaders continue to see medical marijuana patients as a bunch of stoners hiding behind the shield of a half-baked law–and state officials are actively undermining those protections. Over the past three years, leaders of the Michigan State Police pressured crime lab scientists to falsely classify medical cannabis as a synthetic drug, putting more than 180,000 patients at risk of felony arrest. Almost nobody outside the crime lab knew it was happening.

And the worst part? The crime lab’s science-warping policy remains in effect today. Thousands of Michigan’s legally registered medical marijuana patients could be charged with possession of synthetic drugs, depending on the whim of the crime lab.

Max, Dante, and Erica: Caught in a frame-up that began with a call for help.

MMJ: Voters want it, prosecutors don’t

There’s a strange disconnect between Michigan’s citizens and the law enforcement officials they employ. As voters have expressed increasing support for cannabis legalization, police are arresting more and more consumers. In the past five years, 22 Michigan cities have voted to decriminalize cannabis. Michigan voters passed the state’s Medical Marihuana Act (MMA) by a wide majority in 2008. Since then, more than 180,000 patients have registered for a medical marijuana card. 33,000 residents are registered as caregivers, which means they may grow medical cannabis for patients. Yet between 2008 and 2014, cannabis arrests increased statewide by 17 percent.

Max Lorincz is among the 92 percent of Michigan MMJ patients who list severe and chronic pain as a qualifying condition. Chronic pain from two herniated disks put Lorincz on an opioid regimen so heavy that he suffered kidney failure. In 2009, a doctor recommended he try medical marijuana instead. Since then, he’s used cannabis to wean himself off opioids and improve his health.

Although medical marijuana enjoys widespread support here, many law enforcement officials have never accepted it. In 2012, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette began raiding and shutting down dispensaries, but he never questioned the right of patients to possess medicine. Which is why Max Lorincz didn’t expect to be charged with a crime. He had his medical marijuana card. And he possessed far less than the legal limit. 

Local Decriminalization in Michigan

PassedFailed
DetroitFrankfort
Grand RapidsClare
LansingHarrison
FlintLapeer
KalamazooOnaway
SaginawMontrose
Port Huron
East Lansing
Mount Pleasant
Ypsilanti
Berkeley
Hazel Park
Huntington Woods
Oak Park
Pleasant Ridge
Portage

For three months, Lorincz remained uncharged. Four-year-old Dante, meanwhile, remained trapped in the state’s foster care system. The state of Michigan had, in effect, kidnapped the couple’s son. Dante was assigned to Bethany Christian Services, a faith-based organization known for its conservative culture. The agency’s president recently wrote that “we [at Bethany] adhere to the values and beliefs of our faith when serving.” Those beliefs include prohibiting adoption by same-sex couples and, apparently, refusing to allow a parent to legally medicate with cannabis. In order to see his son in weekly two-hour supervised visits, Lorincz had to stop taking medical cannabis and pass drug tests showing no cannabis use. To do that, he was forced to return to opioids.

Then in early January 2015, out of the blue, Lorincz was arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession. For what? he asked. For the vial Deputy Gedeon found back in September, he was told. 

Since when did a registered medical marijuana patient merit a two-year sentence for Spice? How was that even possible?

Lorincz was confused. “Have these people not read the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act?” he wondered. 

Most cases like this never to go trial. The defendant usually pleads to a lesser charge and moves on. Lorincz’s public defender advised him to cut a deal. But Lorincz refused to plead. 

“I was willing to fight because I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he told Leafly. 

Here’s the key moment in the case, one that would grow in significance only in hindsight. When Lorincz refused to plead, Ottawa County Prosecutor Ronald Frantz threatened to charge him with possession of synthetic THC, a felony that came with a two-year prison sentence.

The threat baffled Lorincz. Since when did a registered medical marijuana patient merit a two-year sentence for K2 or Spice? How was that even possible?

The answer could be found in the files of the Michigan State Crime Lab.

Crime labs in the public eye

Dana Chicklas/Fox 17 West Michigan

Fox 17’s Dana Chicklas broke the story of Max Lorincz and the crime lab and refused to let it die.

Crime labs aren’t in the perfection business. The past decade has witnessed a surge of scandals involving falsified reports, tainted studies, and missing evidence.  Last year Slate legal affairs writer Dahlia Lithwick chronicled the problem in a piece titled, “Crime Lab Scandals Keep Getting Worse.”

Lithwick noted the key role played by the war on drugs:

“Over the past decade, crime lab scandals have plagued at least 20 states, as well as the FBI. We know that one of the unintended consequences of the war on drugs has been a rush to prosecute and convict and that crime labs have not operated with sufficient independence from prosecutors’ offices in many instances… Years of deliberate falsification have ruined thousands of lives.”

The Michigan State Crime Lab, a division of the Michigan State Police Department, maintains a number of labs across the state. Each lab handles evidence from many different police agencies.

After Deputy Gedeon bagged Max Lorincz’s medicine vial on Sept. 24, he transferred it to the Michigan State Police Forensic Laboratory in nearby Grand Rapids. There it remained in storage until Dec. 29, when William Ruhf, a senior forensic scientist, finally got around to analyzing it.

Using a gas chromatographic mass spectrometer, Ruhf identified the presence of THC in the residue. On his report, he wrote “Delta-1 THC, origin unknown.”

That designation puzzled Michael Komorn.

“I’d never had a case where the prosecutor didn’t charge for marijuana.”
Michael Komorn, defense attorney

Komorn is a criminal defense attorney based in Farmington Hills, outside Detroit. As president of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association, he’s a leading expert on the state’s MMJ law. He was alerted to Max Lorincz’s case by Dana Chicklas, a reporter for Fox 17 News in Grand Rapids, who discovered the story and refused to let it die. 

Komorn thought Lorincz’s predicament might have implications for many of his clients, as well as 180,000 patients statewide. He offered to take on Lorincz’s case pro bono.

Komorn had never seen an MMJ patient hit with a felony synthetics charge. “That seemed very strange to me,” Komorn told Leafly. “I’d never had a case where the prosecutor didn’t charge for marijuana.” In other words, it seemed to Komorn that the state was arguing that Lorincz’s marijuana wasn’t actually marijuana.

At a preliminary hearing in April 2015, Komorn finally got a chance to unravel this Kafka-esque tangle. Questioning William Ruhf, the scientist who analyzed the BHO smear, Komorn asked him why he wrote “origin unknown” on his report.

Defense attorney Michael Komorn suspected the "policy change" could put the state's 180,000 medical cannabis patients at risk. (Courtesy of Michael Komorn)

Defense attorney Michael Komorn suspected the “policy change” could put the state’s 180,000 medical cannabis patients at risk. (Courtesy of Michael Komorn)

“That means that I do not know where [the THC] originated from,” Ruhf said, according to the court transcript. Because it’s possible to synthetically manufacture THC, Ruhf added, he couldn’t say for certain that the THC found in the residue originated in a cannabis plant.

Isn’t there some way you could test that? Komorn wondered.

No, said Ruhf. “There is nothing to my knowledge scientifically that can be done to demonstrate a simple molecule of THC, whether it originated from a plant” or a synthetic process. “It all looks the same chemically with respect to the instruments and how it’s analyzed.”

Because of a recent policy change, Ruhf said, lab analysts add the phrase “origin unknown” in cases where they don’t see any plant material. Ruhf called it “a clarification.”

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Komorn didn’t get it. “You’ve got the same material, same person doing the test, same variables,” he recalled. “Why did this policy change?”

With Lorincz now facing two years in prison and the permanent loss of his son, Komorn sensed that this case might be an indication of a much larger and more troubling scheme. Prosecutors were no longer playing by the rules established by voters and the courts. If this change had become policy, Michigan’s 180,000 medical marijuana patients and 33,000 caregivers were now risking felony prison time—and none of them knew it.

Playing a hunch, Komorn filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for all State Crime Lab emails related to a marijuana policy change.

What he received, weeks later, astonished him. “I thought that some manipulation might have taken place,” Komorn recalled. “But not to the extent revealed in the emails. They took people who wouldn’t normally be arrested, and made them subject to felonies and forfeiture. And in Max’s case, it led to the loss of his son.”

Internal emails tell the tale

Michaud’s email directed lab staff to consult with Ken Stecker, a lobbyist for the state’s prosecutors, who would rule on cannabis policy.

So what happened?

It had to do with a law the state legislature passed in late 2012. Concerned about the spread of K2, Spice, and other drugs that contain synthetic THC, state lawmakers enacted tough new penalties against the compounds. The law had nothing to do with medical marijuana. But within months, police officials and prosecutors realized that if they could legally decouple THC from the cannabis plant, they could charge medical marijuana patients with possession of synthetics under the new law—and destroy the legal protections afforded to patients under the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act.

That is, law enforcement wanted to treat any cannabis product that didn’t appear in plant form as the legal equivalent of Spice or K2. And they wanted to do secretly.

So the Michigan State Crime Lab quietly instituted a new policy. If no actual cannabis leaf was present, lab analysts were told to record the drug as “THC—origin unknown.” That “clarification” allowed prosecutors to charge medical marijuana patients with felony possession of synthetic THC.

Though it represented a radical change in the law, few outside the lab were aware of the new policy. The public was never informed. State legislators were never made aware. 

Komorn couldn't believe his eyes. A traffic safety specialist for a lobbying group had become the secret cannabis czar of the Michigan State Crime Lab.

Inside the lab, some balked at the change. In a May 2013 email uncovered by Komorn, an analyst named Scott Penabaker, who worked at the lab in Northville, told colleagues that he found it “highly doubtful than any of these Med. Mari. products we are seeing have THC that was synthesized. This would be completely impractical. We are mostly likely seeing naturally occurring THC extracted from the plant!”

The result, Penabaker wrote, was that “you now jump from a misdemeanor to a felony charge.”

What’s more, Komorn discovered, this new policy didn’t even originate from within the state’s law enforcement agencies.

On July 25, 2013, Capt. Greg Michaud, Director of the Michigan State Police’s Forensic Science Division received a memo from a well-known cannabis prohibitionist named Ken Stecker. Stecker’s email claimed that edibles made with cannabis extracts did not qualify as “usable marihuana” under the Medical Marihuana Act.

This email pertained to another case, but it laid the legal groundwork for the prosecution against Max Lorincz. “By possessing edibles that were not ‘usable marihuana’ under the MMMA, but that indisputably were ‘marihuana,’ [the defendant] failed to meet the requirement for section 4 immunity,” Stecker wrote.

“Section 4” of Michigan’s medical marijuana law spells out the legal protections afforded to patients. By tweaking its definition of “usable marihuana,” Stecker implied, the crime lab could effectively scuttle those protections. 

This was yet another odd turn in the increasingly bizarre war against Michigan’s medical marijuana patients. Ken Stecker is not an elected official. He’s a $105,000-a-year traffic safety specialist for PAAM, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, a trade association that runs education programs and lobbies the legislature on behalf of county prosecutors.

Stecker’s power and influence belies his job title. For years he’s been Michigan’s prohibitionist-in-chief. Since 2008, he’s given dozens of presentations around the state denouncing medical marijuana. During testimony before a legislative committee last year, a PAAM official described Stecker as “our leading individual as far as the technical nature of the medical marijuana act is concerned.”

Less than an hour after receiving the email from lobbyist Ken Stecker, Crime Lab Director Michaud relayed an order to regional crime lab managers around the state that turned Stecker’s proposal into official policy.

“In my meeting with PAAM today,” Michaud wrote, “it was decided that any questions regarding law interpretation (e.g., recent controlled substances cases) will be directed thru the applicable Technical Leader who will then reach out to Mr. Ken Stecker for a proper interpretation.”

Michael Komorn could scarcely believe what he was reading. Thanks to Michaud’s order, a traffic safety specialist for a trade association had become the clandestine cannabis czar of the Michigan State Crime Lab.

More scientists push back   

science lab

By early 2014, Komorn’s trove of FOIA’d emails would show, crime lab analysts were increasingly worried about the ethical implications of Stecker’s policy. Bradley Choate, supervisor of the Controlled Substances Unit in Lansing, voiced his concern. “I disagree with the changes,” he wrote in an email. “When THC is identified in a case, [lab analysts have] two choices.” They can, he explained, identify it as marijuana, which is a misdemeanor. Or they can identify it as synthetic THC, a felony. “There is not a third choice.”

Though lab analyst William Ruhf would later testify that it was impossible to differentiate between natural THC and synthetics, Choate noted that this was simply not true. In fact, it could be done with a few easy tests. The crime lab regularly purchased synthetic marijuana reference standards from Cayman Chemicals in Ann Arbor, in order to confirm that K2 or spice obtained in an arrest was, in fact, synthetic. “If we couldn’t purchase standards, we wouldn’t be able to make the (synthetic) identification,” State Crime Lab analyst Kyle Ann Hoskins told the Detroit Free Press in 2012. 

One lab analyst testified that it was impossible to sort natural THC from synthetic. Another analyst noted that was simply not true.

In addition, the presence of other cannabinoids like CBD or CBN in the same sample “indicates that the substance is from a natural source,” Choate noted. 

That is, the Michigan crime lab possessed tests to determine the THC’s origin in seized materials. But under the Stecker policy, analysts were forbidden from reporting anything beyond the presence of THC. By doing so, they handed prosecutors a powerful weapon they could use to convince defendants to plead quickly to a marijuana charge: the threat of a felony synthetics charge.

The stakes were clear. A lab report adhering to the Stecker policy “could lead to the wrong charge of possession of synthetic THC and the ultimate wrongful conviction of an individual,” wrote lab analyst Choate. “For the laboratory to contribute to this possible miscarriage of justice would be a huge black eye,” he added. 

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This wasn’t a squabble over a minor policy tweak. In 2014, Michigan law enforcement agencies made more than 23,000 cannabis arrests. Forensic Science Division Director Michaud once estimated that 40 percent of the crime lab’s $60 million annual budget was spent on cannabis testing.

Choate’s colleagues tried to craft an artful phrase that would carry out Stecker’s policy without violating their own ethical boundaries. One analyst suggested “The origin of the THC identified whether from a plant extract (marihuana) or a synthetic source could not be determined.”

Which is technically true. But that’s like reporting that it “could not be determined” if a homicide suspect touched the murder weapon, while concealing the fact that the crime lab chose not to dust for fingerprints. 

The stakes were clear. The new lab policy could lead to “the ultimate wrongful conviction of an individual.”
Bradley Choate, Crime Lab Controlled Substances Unit Supervisor

On March 15, 2014, Choate’s superiors effectively quashed the discussion. John Bowen, crime lab director Greg Michaud’s chief of staff, declared that the policy had been decided, period. For medical marijuana patients in Michigan, no leaf meant no immunity.

“Is it likely that someone went to the trouble to manufacture THC and two other cannabinoids, mix them up, and bake them into a pan of brownies?” Bowen wrote. “Of course not. That doesn’t mean we should change the results to show we found Marijuana. We didn’t, because Marijuana is a plant, and we didn’t find plant parts.”

“I do not intend to bring Ken Stecker in to explain this to our drug unit,” Bowen wrote testily; “I think everyone understands the issue pretty clearly.”

Bowen gave marching orders to the crime lab analysts. “If we found THC, with no other plant parts,” he wrote, “we should report it as THC, not Marijuana.”

And there the policy remained, up to and past September 24, 2014, the day Max Lorincz called 911 to attend to his wife Erica on the kitchen floor.

Risking perjury 

Lab analyst Bradley Choate found the false-synthetics policy incompatible with the department's ethics training.

Lab analyst Bradley Choate found the false-synthetics policy at odds with the lab’s ethics training.

Bowen’s orders settled the policy question, but it didn’t shield lab analysts from the risk of perjury.

In late January 2015, not long after Max Lorincz’s arrest, analyst Bradley Choate reiterated his concern that reporting THC instead of marijuana, “would lead prosecutors to charge people with synthetic THC. This appears to be what the agency wants.” Choate worried that lab analysts might be forced to lie if they were called to testify in one of these cases. “The question I would pose to all of our analysts is how they would answer questions on the stand.” 

A few weeks after Choate sent that email, his colleague William Ruhf found himself on the stand answering questions from Max Lorincz’s lawyer.

Ruhf stuck to the playbook. He said he didn’t know the origin of the THC, and didn’t have the means to determine whether it “originated from a plant or from the manufacture of a synthetic route synthesis, if you will, within a laboratory. It all looks the same chemically with respect to the instruments and how it’s analyzed.”

For Dante, the false charges meant 18 months of supervised visits and missed birthdays.

A child pays for the policy

The gathering evidence against the crime lab did little to lighten the ordeal of Max Lorincz, Erica Chittenden, and their son Dante.

Caught in the byzantine bureaucracy of the state foster care system, Dante spent Christmas with a foster family. When his fifth birthday came around in May, Dante was denied a brief parental visit because the state caseworker deemed medical marijuana—even though Max had stopped taking it—a threat to the child’s safety. “I tried to explain to her that the form I took when I was around my son is non-intoxicating, there’s no high or buzz,” Max Lorincz recalled. “She had a strong agenda against marijuana and refused to believe there could be any possible positive use of it.” 

Dante would ask when he could come home. 'You'll have to wait just a little longer,' his dad said

The Lorincz family dealt with a revolving door of caseworkers. One was fired; another quit; the case got continually reassigned. “Each time, the paperwork would get lost and we’d have to start over from scratch,” Lorincz recalled. “At one point a caseworker argued in court that Dante should be put up for adoption because the parental bond had been broken—because he’d been out of our custody for so long!”

During brief supervised visits with his parents (sometimes once a week, sometimes twice), Dante would ask when he could come home. “Every time we had to tell him he had to wait just a little bit longer,” Lorincz recalled.

That September, Dante started kindergarten. Due to the court order, his mother and father could not be there. Five-year-old Dante was dropped off for his first day at school by a foster parent.

“Perverted science. Broke the law.”

In October 2015, Max Lorincz’s lawyer vented the full extent of his outrage.

In an extraordinary court filing, Michael Komorn accused the Michigan State Crime Lab of suborning and committing perjury. “The crime lab engaged in systematic evidence tampering,” he wrote. “The crime lab perverted science and broke the law. It reported bogus crimes.”

“The Crime Lab was transformed into a Crime Factory” that stripped away the rights guaranteed to 180,000 patients and caregivers across the state. As evidence he offered the words of crime lab officials themselves, circulated via email.

The Michigan State Police responded by defending its secretly altered cannabis policy. The changes, the department stated, were made “in an effort to standardize reporting practices among our laboratories and to ensure laboratory reports only include findings that can be proved scientifically.” 

“The Crime Lab was transformed into a Crime Factory.”
Michael Komorn, Max Lorincz's defense attorney

Komorn wondered if other cases had been affected by the “THC—origin unknown” fraud. He found plenty. Brandon Shobe, a registered medical marijuana caregiver from Highland Park, north of Detroit, was arrested and charged based on a forensic lab report of THC that “may be from a plant or a synthetic source.” Jason Poe, a medical marijuana patient, was arrested for cannabis possession but faces the possibility of a felony charge for synthetic THC because of the lab report. Earl Carruthers, a registered medical marijuana patient and former Wayne State University football player who cracked his pelvis during his playing days, also faces a potential felony charge for synthetic THC, based on a faulty lab report.

Those patients were harmed by the crime lab’s changed policy, a change “made in an attempt to strip medical marijuana patients of their rights and immunities,” wrote Komorn, “charge or threaten to charge citizens with greater crimes than they might have committed, obtain plea deals, and increase proceeds from drug forfeiture.”

Other police agencies doubled down against the accusations. Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, whose deputies arrested Earl Carruthers, described Komorn’s charges as “garbage.”

(Dana Chicklas/Fox 17 West Michigan)

The crime lab’s ex-director told Chicklas why he quit: pressure to be “in the conviction business” instead of practicing solid science.

Those familiar with the crime lab, however, sang a different song. A few days after Komorn aired his accusations, former Michigan State Police Forensic Science Director John Collins went public in an interview with Fox 17’s Dana Chicklas. Collins resigned in 2012, he said, because the pressure to produce results favoring prosecutors became too much to bear. “It was just a non-stop political game that really got frustrating, and it wore down the morale of our staff, and it quite honestly, it wore me down,” he told Chicklas. Collins fought “to let people understand that our laboratories were not in the prosecution business, they’re not in the conviction business, they’re in the science business,” he said.

That did not go over well with his superiors, and eventually led to his departure. When Collins left, his position was filled by Capt. Greg Michaud, the man who would turn the Ken Stecker memo into official policy. 

Vindication in court

Despite Komorn’s growing body of evidence, Ottawa County Prosecutor Ronald Frantz refused to drop the felony synthetics charge against Max Lorincz. “There is no conspiracy to overcharge MMA card holders,” Frantz said in an issued statement, “but rather a legal question of statutory interpretation.”

Frantz waved off Komorn’s accusations against the state crime lab. “The various defense allegations of lab agent misconduct, etc. are not relevant to the issue presently before the court,” he wrote. 

“I haven't been willing to take a plea deal, because I didn't do anything wrong.”
Max Lorincz

Frantz’s statement would prove to be a misreading of the situation. Ottawa County Circuit Court Judge Ed Post found the crime lab allegations to be quite relevant. On January 22, 2016, Post quickly and quietly granted Komorn’s motion to quash the case against Max Lorincz. The evidence, the judge said, was insufficient to support the charge. 

“It’s been a long 16 months,” Lorincz said after the dismissal. “It’s just nice to have it over.”

“From the very beginning I haven’t been willing to take a plea deal or anything, because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he added. “We’ve always medicated properly, and tried to make sure that we’re doing everything right.”

On her way out of the courthouse, assistant prosecutor Karen Miedema told FOX 17 reporter Dana Chicklas that her office hadn’t ruled out the possibility of re-filing misdeameanor marijuana possession charges against Max Lorincz.

Piecing the family back together

Even after the charge was dismissed, Max Lorincz still had to fight to repair his family’s shattered life.

In a saga that deserves its own twisted narrative, Lorincz and his wife Erica spent a year and a half struggling to regain custody of their young son Dante. Their case file was passed between five different child welfare  workers. Some quit. Others actively worked to break up the family. “Every time a new one received our case, we’d have to start over from the beginning,” Lorincz told Leafly. “Often our files would mysteriously go missing.” 

“I believe they were purposely losing our files, assuming we’d mess up and forfeit our child permanently.”
Max Lorincz

“I believe they were purposely losing our files,” Lorincz said, “assuming that somewhere along the way we’d mess up and do something to forfeit our child permanently.” Lorincz and his wife were subjected to constant drug testing. He was legally barred from using medical marijuana, and was forced to return to muscle relaxants and opiods to deal with his chronic pain.

Finally, on March 25, 2016, five-year-old Dante was returned to his parents.

“It was near Easter,” Lorincz recalled. “We went out to dinner that night, and we tried to do a kind of birthday celebration,” to make up for the birthday they missed the previous year, which Dante spent in foster care. “We had a lot of colored eggs, and spent the evening playing with Skylanders, which are Dante’s favorite toys.”

Today, the Lorincz family is whole once more. Max is once again off opioids and managing his chronic pain with controlled doses of medical cannabis.

The false-felony policy remains

Max Lorincz and his family try to beat the heat on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2016 at their home in Spring Lake, Mich. In September 2014, Lorincz and his wife, Erica Chittenden, lost custody of their then four year old son, Dante Lorincz, after Max was charged with felony possession of synthetic THC — even though he is a card-carrying medical marijuana patient. The couple fought the charges and sought to regain custody of their son, a process that took 18 months. Sean Proctor for Leafly

Max Lorincz’s ordeal has become the basis for a federal lawsuit. (Sean Proctor for Leafly)

Have reforms followed in the wake of the crime lab’s exposure? Not really.

Earlier this month the Michigan legislature passed the most significant medical cannabis reform package since the original passage of the 2008 Medical Marijuana Act. The legislation specifically allows patients to possess non-leaf forms of cannabis, such as edibles and concentrates.

But the state crime lab’s false-synthetics policy undermines the new reforms. The forensic division still requires its lab reports to state “the origin of [THC] may be from a plant (marijuana) or a synthetic source,” thereby allowing prosecutors to file or threaten false synthetics charges against legally registered medical marijuana patients.  

Furthermore, nobody from the Michigan State Police Department or its forensic division has faced anything other than embarrassment from local media reports. Ken Stecker remains employed by PAAM, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. William Ruhf still works at the Lansing office of the state crime lab. Forensic Science Division Director Greg Michaud, who installed Stecker’s false felony policy, retired in May 2016. 

“The crime lab is still doing this,” said Komorn. The false-synthetics policy leaves 180,000 MMJ patients exposed to possible arrest.

Leafly contacted the Michigan State Police to ask if changes in the policy were planned. The agency’s public affairs office responded by sending us a statement from November 17, 2015 “that explains our position reference (sic) these allegations.”

“The MSP-FSD [Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division] takes full responsibility for this policy change and stands behind its decision, as being in the best interest of science,” the statement read. “The allegation that politics or other influence played a role in this policy change is wholly untrue.”

In 2014, there were 35,762 drug arrests in Michigan. Last year there were 36,686. Approximately two-thirds of those arrests were for cannabis, and 85 percent of all cannabis arrests were for simple possession. Max Lorincz was one of 696 people arrested for marijuana possession in Ottawa County in 2014. 

Mike Nichols, an adjunct professor of forensic science in criminal law at Western Michigan University, has formally asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the actions of the Michigan State Police Crime Lab in its handling of marijuana cases. To date, the U.S. Justice Department has taken no official action on the request.

Meanwhile, Michael Komorn, Lorincz’s attorney, has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Lorincz and other MMJ patients. Komorn has asked the U.S. District Court to order a halt to the false lab reports, and to appoint a federal monitor to assure compliance. “The crime lab is still doing this,” despite the exposure and bad publicity, Komorn said earlier this month. “On any given day, an analyst could say a substance is marijuana. The next day they could say it’s ‘THC, origin unknown.'”

The first hearing in that lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 2.

Featured images: Sean Proctor for Leafly

Bruce Barcott's Bio Image

Bruce Barcott

Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.

View Bruce Barcott's articles

  • Mark McCombs

    That is a great read. Sad, but engaging. Please keep us updated as this story continues to unfold.

  • Chris Vukin

    This is outrageous and sadly true. I was a nursing Supervisor at North Ottawa Community Hospital along with being a MMJ card holder(though none of my co-workers knew as the rhetoric in this area is that cannabis is the devil’s weed), I brought my son into be seen after picking up my boy from the babysitter where she said he had been “constipated” she thought. My child was in terrible pain and something was wrong. While at the hospital being seen my child’s mom asked that he be tested for marijuana because she was afraid I was giving him some. This spiraled into the same situation where I have been fighting for my child for 3yrs. These folks in Ottawa county need to be held to account, the officials and police are ignoring the law and making up their own, they are the ones needing to go behind bars.

    • Laura Bezzeg

      I am so sorry you are having to go through this.

    • RevJack

      If the police, prosecutors and their cohorts are immune from jail and fines and forfeiture for their constant breaking of the law, then there is no law there is just tyranny. And tyrants should never be tolerated in a free society.

      • neroden

        We have two choices in the long run: arrest the corrupt police and prosecutors and prosecute them formally before judges — the option I prefer. If that is made impossible *by* the corrupt police and prosecutors, only vigilante justice will be possible, which would be a sad outcome, but better than tyranny.

        The US attempt by prosecutors to eliminate private prosecutions is a large part of this, a part of is poorly understood by most people. In the UK the prosecutors are “kept honest” by private prosecutions — if the public prosecutor won’t prosecute criminal behavior by the police, any private citizen can do the prosecution, and they *do*. In the US there has been a concerted attempt to prevent private prosecutions so as to give DAs total power to be utterly corrupt.

  • Scott 2

    I commend Max Lorincz for standing up for us, and his families rights, (even though they, and especially their son) had to suffer for this justice. Interesting, how some people are some set in getting their way, to conform to their beliefs, instead of the law that the folks in Michigan voted for, partly because their afraid of losing their jobs, or appearing to be different from the status quo.

  • Open Minds

    Excellent reporting and a classic case of bureaucratic abuse of power. Ten or twenty years from now, cannabis persecution will be over. Unfortunately, in won’t be within the next 4 to 8 years because neither Clinton nor Trump have a remote understanding of cannabis. By the way, placing cannabis in Schedule 2 will not change much. If anything, it will allow Big Pharma to take over medical cannabis.

    • Kelley Mottola

      I would agree. This is an extreme case of bureaucratic abuse of power. Too bad our country and citizens have a corrupt system, politicians who don’t have a clue, and years before cannabis is recognized as it should be. If it is ever recognized as it should be, if big pharma get their hands on it, we will not see cannabis in it’s true form. Ironically, exactly what this poor family has suffered for (synthetic source), will be the only form available for legal use.

  • BryanKrumm

    The crime lab and every employee should be charged under RICO laws as an ongoing criminal enterprise!

    • James kelli

      Yesir! Can we still burn people at the stake? Can we do it and say “manner of execution undetermined”? Works for me. Just like nonsense worked for them. Get your torch’s!

  • Marty

    Excellent job Bruce

  • snow_watcher

    And people wonder why we don’t trust the police or the legal system. A simple call for help and the next thing you know your life is ruined.

    What a horrible disaster for the folks impacted by the scumbags perpetrating this sort of thing. Kudos for standing up to them.

  • foodforthought

    No one should promote the canard that marijuana is dangerous, like pharmaceutical drugs. Or even that it is a ‘drug’, except in Merriam-Webster’s third and broadest definition, as something which affects the mind. By that definition, religion and television (‘the plug-in drug’) should also be included. In truth marijuana is a medicinal herb, cultivated, bred, and evolved in service to human beings over thousands of years.

    “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting people to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, break up their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” –John Ehrlichman

    Prohibition of marijuana is a premise built on a tissue of lies: Concern For Public Safety. Our new laws save hundreds of lives every year, on our highways alone. In November of 2011, a study at the University of Colorado found that in the thirteen states that decriminalized marijuana between 1990 and 2009, traffic fatalities have dropped by nearly nine percent—now nearly ten percent in Michigan—more than the national average, while sales of beer went flat by five percent. No wonder Big Alcohol opposes it. Ambitious, unprincipled, profit-driven undertakers might be tempted too.

    In 2012 a study released by 4AutoinsuranceQuote revealed that marijuana users are safer drivers than non-marijuana users, as “the only significant effect that marijuana has on operating a motor vehicle is slower driving”, which “is arguably a positive thing”. Despite occasional accidents, eagerly reported by police-blotter ‘journalists’ as ‘marijuana-related’, a mix of substances was often involved. Alcohol, most likely, and/or prescription drugs, nicotine, caffeine, meth, cocaine, heroin, and a trace of the marijuana passed at a party ten days ago. However, on the whole, as revealed in big-time, insurance-industry stats, within the broad swath of mature, experienced consumers, slower and more cautious driving shows up in significant numbers. A recent Federal study has reached the same conclusion. And legalization should improve those numbers further.

    No one has ever died from an overdose of marijuana. It’s the most benign ‘substance’ in history. Most people—and particularly patients who medicate with marijuana–use it in place of prescription drugs or alcohol.

    Marijuana has many benefits, most of which are under-reported or never mentioned in American newspapers. Research at the University of Saskatchewan indicates that, unlike alcohol, cocaine, heroin, or Nancy (“Just say, ‘No!’”) Reagan’s beloved nicotine, marijuana is a neuroprotectant that actually encourages brain-cell growth. Researchers in Spain (the Guzman study) and other countries have discovered that it also has tumor-shrinking, anti-carcinogenic properties. These were confirmed by the 30-year Tashkin population study at UCLA.

    Drugs are man-made, cooked up in labs, for the sake of patents and the profits gained by them. Often useful, but typically burdened with cautionary notes and lists of side effects as long as one’s arm. ‘The works of Man are flawed.’

    Marijuana is a medicinal herb, the most benign and versatile in history. In 1936 Sula Benet, a Polish anthropologist, traced the history of the word “marijuana”. It was “cannabis” in Latin, and “kanah bosm” in the old Hebrew scrolls, quite literally the Biblical Tree of Life, used by early Christians to treat everything from skin diseases to deep pain and despair. Why despair? Consider the current medical term for cannabis sativa: a “mood elevator”. . . as opposed to antidepressants, which ‘flatten out’ emotions, leaving patients numb to both depression and joy.

    The very name, “Christ” translates as “the anointed one”. Well then, anointed with what? It’s a fair question. And it wasn’t holy water, friends. Holy water came into wide use in the Middle Ages. In Biblical times, it was used by a few tribes of Greek pagans. And Christ was neither Greek nor pagan.

    Medicinal oil, for the Prince of Peace. A formula from the Biblical era has been rediscovered. It specifies a strong dose of oil from kanah bosom, ‘the fragrant cane’ of a dozen uses: ink, paper, rope, nutrition. . . . It was clothing on their backs and incense in their temples. And a ‘skinful’ of medicinal oil could certainly calm one’s nerves, imparting a sense of benevolence and connection with all living things. No wonder that the ‘anointed one’ could gain a spark, an insight, a sense of the divine, and the confidence to convey those feelings to friends and neighbors.

    I am appalled at the number of ‘Christian’ politicians, prosecutors, and police who pose on church steps or kneeling in prayer on their campaign trails, but cannot or will not face the scientific or the historical truths about cannabis, Medicinal Herb Number One, safe and effective for thousands of years, and celebrated as sacraments by most of the world’s major religions.

    • Michelle Pixley

      Thanks so much for enlightening me more!!!! I want to do more research now on the past & mj. Thanks again for taking the time to write your article!

      • foodforthought

        Thanks for your interest and kind words, Michelle.

  • Dave K

    There is a reason why prosecutors do not want to see marijuana legal and regulated. Many have become far more corrupt than the people that they pursue. Civil asset forfeiture is the cornerstone to the war on marijuana and the war on drugs. American cops now steal more property through civil asset forfeiture than all the US burglars combined. This is commonly known as “policing for profit.” Civil forfeiture laws are a substantial threat to everyone’s private property rights. Under the civil forfeiture scheme, police and prosecutors are entitled to take property without ever charging the owner, or anybody else, with a crime—and then profit from the proceeds. Smoke a joint, we take your car. Grow a plant we don’t like and we take your house. Don’t expect that this cannot happen to you even if you don’t smoke marijuana. It does not matter who in the car has the joint for you to lose it. In the Midwest police took the home of an elderly woman after her grandson who was staying there planted some cannabis in the yard. She did not even know what the plant was.

    “In 2008, law enforcement took over $1.5 billion from the American public. While this number seems incredibly large, just a few years later, in 2014, that number tripled to nearly $4.5 billion.

    When we examine these numbers, and their nearly exponential growth curve, it appears that police in America are getting really good at separating the citizen from their property — not just really good, criminally good.

    To put this number into perspective, according to the FBI, victims of burglary offenses suffered an estimated $3.9 billion in property losses in 2014.”

    http://thefreethoughtproject.com/american-cops-steal-property-burglars-combined

  • Robert Calkin

    Great article. A total miscarriage of justice for Max and his son. Kudos to Michael Komorn who is fighting the good fight. Hopefully this will all get cleared up so other people don’t suffer the same fate.