Montana medicinal marijuana is in the hands of a Helena judge, but not entirely
By Taylor Anderson
Mike Singer woke up Thursday the owner of a business.
The business, Sensible Alternatives in Belgrade, which sold marijuana to approved patients, wasn’t making money yet, but after paying off his debts to contractors, employees and electricians, Singer was ready to start taking in a profit and giving money to investors for the first time.
When he woke up on Friday he may have lost his job. He wasn’t the only one.
“When we got into this we knew we were taking a big risk,” Singer said.
Selling medicinal cannabis in Montana was legal on June 30, but was slated to become illegal July 1 when SB 423, a bill passed by the Montana Legislature, was set to take affect.
Legislators in March passed the restricting bill making any sale of medical marijuana illegal, effectively closing dispensaries across the state and ending an industry that opponents long claimed shouldn’t have existed. But that wasn’t the end of the debate.
Caregivers, the bill says, would now instead be required to give the product away to no more than three patients, a move that sought to end the questionable tactics by pot tycoons like Jason Christ of Missoula, who became well known for his cannabis caravans at which hundreds of patients were approved for medicinal marijuana within a few hours.
“There’s nowhere in [Initiative 148] that creates an industry,” said Rep. James Knox, R-Billings, an outspoken proponent of repealing the law altogether. “This movement wasn’t really about medical as much as it is about legalizing pot,” Knox said.
Singer’s story was in stark contrast to other dispensaries operating perhaps outside the realm of the 2004 voter-passed initiative that legalized medical marijuana in the state. He’s not a patient and says he doesn’t use the drug, but believes in its medicinal effects.
Singer seemed sure, even on the eve of his business’s closing, that this wasn’t the end of profitable medical marijuana in Montana. His doors will be closed and his pot plants nonexistent, but the inside of his shop will remain furnished and ready for a potential reopening.
“You can’t sweep something like that under the rug forever, it’s not going away,” he said.
The July 1 deadline
Singer spent his last week apologizing to patients that his selection was limited. He’d stopped growing pot in time to prepare for the halt of his business, which was determined when SB 423 passed both the Senate and House in March.
The 35-page bill, introduced by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, would regulate physicians who deem whether or not Montana residents have an approved debilitating ailment of health. Going forward, doctors could only prescribe to 25 patients in a year before they face examination by the Board of Medical Examiners at the doctor’s expense, according to the bill.
The bill’s passing coincided with raids by federal and state narcotics agents of more than two dozen dispensaries across the state. Agents razed plants, marijuana, cash, weapons and cars from operations like Queen City Caregivers in Helena and Natural Medicine in Great Falls.
The raids represented a statement from state leaders that it would not be business as usual after two years of an all but clandestine exponential boom. It created an industry that grew from less than 100 in 2005, to more than 4,000 patients in 2009, and more than 30,000 this year, and didn’t go unnoticed by officials.
The raids landed in Big Sky on March 14 this year when agents raided a business owner in town. The owner, who wanted to remain anonymous due to legal issues, said his once successful business fell into a downward spiral of lost patients and falling profits.
“I spent a lot of money and a lot of time doing it and trying to do it right,” the owner said. “I’ve got children, I’ve got a wife.”
It was a fate he’d experienced as the owner of a construction business in town before that industry collapsed around 2008.
“We’re just doing the best we can, having been shuffled so quickly out of construction and then watching this crumble too,” he said.
Sources connected with the raids said agents targeted businesses they believed were operating outside the law as established by Initiative 148.
But Knox – and others like him – spoke with an air of dissatisfied contempt over SB 423, because he is a firm believer that marijuana shouldn’t be used medicinally by anyone. He believed the solution to Montana’s issues would be in an all-out repeal.
“It’s not like other medicines where you have the ability to have a dose measurement with an expected performance based on height and weight,” Knox said. “It’s not, ‘Take two tokes and call me in the morning.’”
Legislators passed a repeal bill before SB 423, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed that bill in a branding session on the steps of the capitol in Helena where he nixed 17 bills, all by Republican legislators.
Schweitzer has announced publicly his belief in regulating the industry, but has also spoken out against SB 423. But in a move that surprised some advocates, he didn’t veto the bill, and instead let it take effect without his signature.
After the law passed Schweitzer’s branding iron unscathed, marijuana advocates took action another way: in the courts.
The Montana Caregivers Industry Association asked a judge in Helena for full injunction of the bill, claiming unconstitutionality. A two-day trial in Helena in June left owners and patients in limbo in the weeks leading up to the July 1 deadline.
“The referendum is moving forward, there’s no sitting around and waiting,” said Kate Cholewa, Director of Communications for the MTCIA.
Cholewa said she was encouraged by the case put forth by James Goetz, of Bozeman, who represented the MTCIA. But the group isn’t waiting around for the judge’s decision.
District Judge James Reynolds expressed his dislike for parts of the bill during closing statements on the final day of the hearing, telling Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy that “the state is truly relying on guardian angels to come forward” to provide free cannabis to patients.
Molloy, representing the state, listed three provisions he believed could be taken out of the bill while maintaining its effectiveness.
But the MTCIA announced days before July 1 that it would ramp up efforts to collect the 24,000-plus signatures required for putting an initiative on the ballot in November and halting SB 423.
“There’s no sitting around and waiting,” Cholewa said.
The attorney general’s office in Montana announced July 28 that it would allow the group to launch an all-out attempt at obtaining the signatures and legitimizing another referendum.
No decision on the potential injunction had been made as of press time, but had the judge granted a complete injunction, it would be likely that some dispensary owners would have no future in the medical marijuana industry.
Optimism despite uncertainty
Bozeman Police Chief Ron Price said he wasn’t planning to raid dispensaries if the bill took effect on July 1, but that the department would follow whichever law passed through the court.
“The laws change all the time, and people ask me ‘How are you gearing up to it?’” Price said. “We expect people to abide by the law.”
The industry has always been illegal at the federal level, but Initiative 148, which passed with a vote 62 percent of voter approval in 2004, made medical marijuana legal in Montana.
Montana isn’t the only state that legalized marijuana for medicinal use. There are 16 states and an estimated 1-to-1.5 million patients nationwide, according to NORML records.
Advocates have voiced belief that a looming backlash of patients flooding the black market will come as a shock to lawmakers. Patients have said publicly they want to continue to use marijuana for medicine, and they’ll likely search for it illegally if it comes down to it.
“The horse is out of the barn,” Singer said. “Now you’ve got to rein it back in.”