Green rush 

Getting a grip on Montana's budding medical marijuana industry

Not too long ago any talk of a "green" business had something to do with the environment or climate change. But a bumper crop of new medical marijuana businesses in Missoula—and across the state—forces a new definition of the phrase. Montanans are now coming to grips with a different kind of green business, and an emerging "green rush."

Much like the West's gold rush, the noticeable rise in cannabusinesses elicits a mix of heart-warming success stories, rampant opportunism and chaotic legal wrangling. More than anything, the current green rush speaks to just how fast the industry has grown since federal enforcement was relaxed late last year.

The numbers tell much of the story. At the end of 2008, Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) reported 1,557 registered medical marijuana patients in the state. One year later, there were 7,339. Based on current trends and estimates from those in the industry, the state likely added another 3,000-plus patients to the rolls in January.

click to enlarge CATHRINE L. WALTERS

In Missoula County, where 935 patients were registered at the end of 2009, storefront businesses are sprouting up throughout downtown. The city counted four licensed medical marijuana businesses last November. Now, just three months later, there are 12, according to Bill Bonetati, accounting supervisor at the city's licensing department.

That number doesn't include the many more registered caregivers operating without storefronts. According to DPHHS, 260 caregivers call Missoula County home, and they range from those growing marijuana in a spare bedroom for one patient to those with more than 500 patients growing thousands of plants in local warehouses. These operations may challenge the community's capacity to enforce the vague state law that governs them, but are still gaining legitimacy. To wit, one local business, Zoo Mountain Natural Care, joined the Missoula Chamber of Commerce last month, the first such business to join any of the chambers in the state.

The "green rush" took five years to take root in the Treasure State (see timeline below). In 2004, 62 percent of voters supported Initiative 148, making Montana the 10th state to pass a medical marijuana program. (There are now 14.) At the infancy of the Medical Marijuana Act, patients and caregivers still feared federal prosecution. For instance, Missoula activist Robin Prosser, the poster child for medical marijuana rights, fought a constant battle against federal authorities to gain access to her medicine until she killed herself in 2007. Just last year, the Independent interviewed four different caregivers who, despite adhering to state laws, operated largely secret grow houses and delivery services in order to help registered patients who also felt as if they could be arrested at any moment.

But the landscape abruptly changed last October after the Obama administration announced that federal authorities would defer to state marijuana laws, essentially meaning the days of feds raiding patients' homes and pot dispensaries around the country were over. The move opened the floodgates in Montana, bringing the industry out of the grow rooms and onto main street. Patients and marijuana advocates rejoiced, and law enforcement appeared to look the other way. Today, advocates and law enforcement alike wonder if it's grown too fast (see sidebar on page 16). Specifically, concerned patients question whether some caregivers operate in deference to the "spirit of the law" and keep a patient's best interests in mind. Authorities suspect the law now serves to "cloak" illegal drug dealing. Either way, the industry has changed dramatically, causing a ripple effect through the local job market, medical community, court system and police force.

The Independent spoke with more than 50 sources to try to cut through the haze of the state's medical marijuana industry. What we found might be best explained by walking through the three steps to becoming a medical marijuana patient: finding a doctor, choosing a caregiver, and growing medicine on your own.

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