« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

Medical marijuana trips up Montana


The state of Montana is frantically backpedaling six years after voters passed Medical Marijuana Initiative 148. (Don't blame me, I didn't vote for it.) One of 10 states now with medical marijuana programs, Montana has fallen into what might be called pot-plant purgatory as it struggles with blurry laws and even blurrier implementation plans, stalling what might well become a legitimate and major homegrown industry.

In this economy, it's encouraging to witness any business spring up so quickly from a tiny seed. For marijuana outlet stores, business is flourishing, though some residents have become alarmed. Towns like Lewistown, Kalispell, Great Falls, Montana City, Belgrade, Havre and Billings are suffering runaway growth in dispensaries and have passed moratoria limiting new establishments.

It's as if toddlers dumped sugar cubes on an anthill while state officials, legal pot users, caregivers and law enforcement officers all scurry about trying to figure out where the boundaries are. The biggest loophole in Montana's medical marijuana law allows non-residents to obtain legal authorization to use medicinal cannabis in the state. Such permissiveness contributed to over 23,500 registered patients by the end of July. And was this large group mostly older and infirm? Not a chance -- more than 25 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30.

The Montana Legislature will attempt to better define the state's marijuana regulatory scheme when it convenes in January 2011. It might also look south for help. In June, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed two bills into law instituting complicated licensing requirements on dispensaries and cracking down on unscrupulous doctors handing out marijuana prescriptions like lollypops.

Meanwhile, opening the pot-filled Pandora's box has already resulted in an outbreak of drug-related arrests. One of the more interesting occurred earlier this year in Missoula, where a man was arrested for growing nearly 100 marijuana plants in a labyrinth of hand-dug grow rooms under his house. The marijuana plants, flourishing under artificial lighting, had become four-foot giants. In the garage were pickaxes, shovels, a cement mixer and glass jars filled with marijuana. On a table was a stack of business cards promoting "Organic Goodness."

The Missoula entrepreneur, who was a registered medical marijuana patient, apparently got carried away and far exceeded his quota. Yet once those cute seedlings break through the soil, who can resist cultivating more? Remember planting a bean in a Dixie cup back in third grade? You'd check the windowsill everyday until a green shoot appeared, releasing the overwhelming joy that all gardeners feel. Deep inside, we're all horticulturists.

The underground grower exhibited some admirable traits: (1) He was hardworking -- digging out a crawlspace isn't easy, because your head's always banging into floor joists. (2) He was industrious -- all those supplies like potting soil, seeds, grow lights, electrical wires, and business cards, point to a stellar retail plan. (3) He was competent -- with four-foot high plants, this guy knows fertilizers. And (4) He showed foresight. A cement mixer and extra jars means he was ready for a teeming business.

Some potential medical pot users, less confident than the Missoula gopher, find themselves in a quandary. They pose questions like these on the state Web site: "I don't have the money for the registration fee. Can I make installments?" Times are tight, but we're talking a measly $25 fee here.

Or, "Where do I get seeds? Where do I get plants? Where do I get a bag of medical marijuana?" No doubt an only child. Or, "Do I need to tell my employer and does he have to accommodate the use of medical marijuana while I'm at work?" One can only hope this person does not drive a truck carrying nuclear waste.

Can Montana's MM program survive the political climate changes that lie ahead? Many chronic pain sufferers hope so; scientific evidence indicates that the active ingredients in marijuana can relieve symptoms from illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS. They're willing to overlook negative side effects including possible lung damage, potentially impaired short-term cognitive ability and "amotivational syndrome," a condition defined basically as the loss of get up and go.

But long-term help for Montana, as well as other states, can only come if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gets into the business by regulating marijuana's active ingredients. What we need is the definition of a legal drug that meets accepted standards for drug purity and potency and clear rules about who gets to grow, sell and consume marijuana.

What we now have is a crapshoot, with vague laws creating legal loopholes big enough for illegitimate pot users and growers to capitalize on.

Joe Barnhart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Dillon, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].