Green rush 

Getting a grip on Montana's budding medical marijuana industry

Page 3 of 6

Choosing a caregiver

The Medical Marijuana Act allows patients to grow six plants and possess one dried ounce of marijuana. Patients may also purchase medicine from a registered caregiver who is allowed to cultivate six plants per patient, as well as hold an ounce of smokable marijuana for each. Patients can only buy from their registered caregiver. There's no limit to the number of patients to whom a caregiver can provide medicine.

The caregivers courting patients at last week's Cannabis Convention provide a sense of the variety.

Montana Pain Management (MPM), owned by Rick Rosio, stood out in the exhibit hall. The corner booth featured a large flat-screen TV displaying close-up images of its strains, as well as physical examples. Rosio's operation, which is located on Third Street, is perhaps Missoula's largest "dispensary" by volume. Rosio estimates that he's the caregiver for more than 500 people, meaning he can legally grow more than 3,000 marijuana plants. (A person has to be listed as the caregiver, not a business or nonprofit.) He says ounces typically sell for between $300 and $350, but often less based on an income-based sliding scale.

A few booths down from MPM, Zoo Mountain Natural Care displayed its strains in glass boxes and gave passersby a lighted magnifying glass with which to examine the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) crystals coating its products. Run by 20-year-old Logan Head and his two business partners, Zoo Mountain would have a fruitful day: Head said afterward that about 30 patients signed up, giving the clinic, which has a storefront on the corner of Orange and Front streets, about 160 patients between its three caregivers. Head says Zoo Mountain's success has to do with its prices—all strains are $225 an ounce—and he claims to donate 10 to 20 percent of profits back into the community.

Farther down the row sat Terry Lucke, dubbed in his advertisements as "The Fat Hippie." He and his two business partners have fewer than 50 patients, he said, but they're still in the process of finding a storefront and obtaining a business license from the city. Lucke sells ounces for between $275 and $325.

Across the room, another caregiver sat with small jars of marijuana on his table, the names of the strains written in Sharpie on strips of duct tape—"Blueberry" and "Train Wreck," among others. The older man said he was among the 417 workers let go by Smurfit-Stone Containerboard Corp. earlier this year when it shut down its Frenchtown linerboard plant, where he worked for 30 years. The man, who wished to remain anonymous, said it's too late to go back to school for retraining. He came to the Cannabis Convention, his first, in hopes of adding another patient or two to the six he currently supplies.

"I'm 51 years old and this is my best shot," he said.

With so many caregivers flooding the market, prices are getting pushed down, patients and caregivers say. Barry George, a caregiver with Helping Hands, reports dropping the price for an ounce by $50 to stay competitive. John Masterson, the director of the Montana chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says competition has become so fierce that some resort to aggressive tactics to sign up new patients. He tells of one instance in which a grower cornered a disabled person in a bar offering to be their caregiver.

Shaneca Adams, a caregiver with Grizzly Organics, says there's "definitely some scandalous stuff" happening in the industry.

"Caregivers are basically guiding potential patients into the process of signing up so they can end up as their caregiver," he says. "It's kind of like a preying market—people are like sharks looking for the old ladies who don't know any better."

And if growers can't persuade patients to designate them their caregiver, they often, according to some observers, sell to them anyway.

"A lot of these places around here, if you have a card, you can get smoke, you can get marijuana," says George. "That ain't right...A couple places in town are just treating it like California [where card holders don't have to get medicine from just one caregiver]."

While it would appear caregivers are cashing in, most claim that's not the case. They tell of failed crops and $600 electric bills from their high-wattage grow lights, or more significant investments in storefronts and legal teams to make sure they stay on the right side of the law.

"In the current environment," Adams says, "you're working with a few select people. It's almost like a coffee shop but you have a very limited clientele. So I think there's a limit to the profit that can be made off of it. A lot of caregivers that I talk to are seeing that it's not as profitable as they thought it would be. And especially right now, because there are so many people getting set up."

click to enlarge 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. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • At the end of 2008, Montana‚Äôs 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.
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