Marijuana in the Wild West
Blame Montana’s Profiteers and Politicians
BY PAT HILL
About a year and a half ago, I watched Montana's medical marijuana program quickly begin to blossom into an industry, after the Obama Administration announced it would not focus the energy of the Justice Department on violations of federal law concerning marijuana in states where it was "legal" for medical use. The federal government has now seemingly done a 180 regarding that decision, raiding operations in Montana, Washington State, and California, and many think the Treasure State helped bring that 180 turn about.
As I began to investigate and report upon the medical marijuana business that I, myself, quickly deemed "The Wild West," there seemed to be no hard and fast rules regarding the "what, where, why, when and how" aspect of the selling and producing of a variety of medical marijuana products—from smokeables to candies. There seemed to be a wink and a nod regarding who got those state-issued cards: more what, where, why, when and how there, too. Storefront operations quickly began to sprout up, and a "traveling doctor's clinic" of sorts was established by the now-infamous Jason Christ, who registered medical marijuana patients by the thousands on the road via a "tele-medicine" approach, with no real contact with the doctor who was recommending cannabis as a treatment for: mostly chronic pain. The storefronts and the "Flying Circus," as Christ's traveling operation began to be referred to, started to raise eyebrows among both opponents and proponents of medical marijuana.
"The floodgates were opened when the Obama administration made its decision not to enforce," said Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harbell about a year ago, about the time Montana began to surface in the pages of such publications as High Times. "Within weeks, we saw tons of money flowing in to get these (businesses) set up."
It turns out that the wide-open ways of Montana medical marijuana did not go unnoticed by the federal government. Investigations into medical marijuana operations by the DEA began soon after the envelope began to get pushed in the Treasure State. Warrants were served and operations taken down across the state earlier this year, beginning the very day Montana State legislators began to discuss repealing or changing a medical marijuana law that had become front page news in this state and even in the Wall Street Journal. With tens of thousands of Montanans signing up to "get legal," tens of thousands of dollars being made in an entirely new and virtually unregulated industry, and Jason Christ even smoking marijuana in a long-stemmed pipe on the steps on the Montana Capitol Building, medical marijuana was the top news story in Montana in 2010.
The last week of April, 2011, the Montana Legislature approved Senate Bill 423, which will bring about a vast change in the world of medical marijuana in Big Sky Country. It repeals Montana's 2004 voter-passed law that allows some people to use marijuana for certain medical reasons: this was the perceived "big loophole" that opponents claim allowed the vast majority of the state's now-registered medical marijuana users to use cannabis for chronic pain. SB423 puts into place a tougher law with stricter regulations intended to make it much harder for people claiming “severe chronic pain” to get medical marijuana cards.
"Under the law, large marijuana growing operations and storefront medical pot dispensaries must shut down operations by July 1," the Associated Press recently reported. "The system will transform to one in which people authorized to use medical marijuana can either grow their own or obtain it without compensation from a provider who can grow it for up to three people. It's designed to squeeze any profits out of what's been a booming industry in Montana."
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer called Senate Bill 423 "unconstitutional on its face" when he first read the bill the legislature had finally cobbled together, and a provision allowing law enforcement access to medical marijuana patient lists was withdrawn, but the majority of the bill was left intact and received by the governor as the session wound down.
Schweitzer told the editorial board of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that although he is unhappy with the final draft of SB 423, he will allow it to become law, albeit without his signature, a rather impotent way of showing his displeasure with the new law.
“I guess I could veto it,” Schweitzer also told the AP. “I could say that this is a danged poor bill, and you started out with a good bill (from an interim committee), and you went downhill for almost 88 days. But I'm kind of painted in a corner. They painted Montana in a corner. They accepted some of the language that I believe makes the bill constitutional. So that is good. Is the bill perfect? Not even close. But can I veto and allow the Wild West to go on for the next couple of years? I don't think so.”
As I watched the Wild West medical marijuana show progress in Montana over the last year and a half, I knew changes would come. I saw too many people who didn't need those cards for medical reasons obtain them, including some under 18 years of age. I watched partnerships form and crumble as profits undermined promises of "patients first." I watched the law being pushed to its very limits, to the point where even advocates of total legalization of marijuana like Montana NORML warned of the potential damage being done. Saddest of all, I watched politics being played with peoples' health in the worst Montana legislative session I have personally ever followed. Both profiteers and politicians deserve blame here, and it's the people for whom cannabis provides real relief that have paid the price.