Green rush 

Getting a grip on Montana's budding medical marijuana industry

Page 6 of 6

Now what?

Following the sudden rise in new patients, storefront businesses and bold interpretations of the state law, we look ahead at the next big things in Montana's medical marijuana movement.

Looming legislative fight

Little can be done to change Montana's current Medical Marijuana Act until the 2011 Legislature takes up the issue. And all indications are the fight in Helena will be intense.

click to enlarge The 2009 legislative session featured “Cannabis at the Capitol Day,” above, an event aimed at educating lawmakers on the benefits of medical marijuana. Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United, which organized the event, expects a difficult debate in 2011. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • The 2009 legislative session featured “Cannabis at the Capitol Day,” above, an event aimed at educating lawmakers on the benefits of medical marijuana. Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United, which organized the event, expects a difficult debate in 2011.

"There is a lot of improvement needed in the Medical Marijuana Act. Have we as a city gotten together a complete list of our concerns? No. We're working on it," says Keithi Worthington, deputy city attorney in Missoula. "And I've been in discussion with one of the county attorneys to talk about ways that we can gather our concerns and put them together both as a county and as a city to get those concerns to the Legislature."

Tom Daubert, the founder of Patients and Families United, a lobbying group that organized "Cannabis at the Capitol Day" during the last legislative session, says he sees areas of common concern between patients and law enforcement. But he also acknowledges that certain caregivers and entrepreneurs have undone a lot of the headway his group made in Helena.

"I've been told by law enforcement officials that we're further behind today than we were at the beginning of the last legislative session, politically," he says, "and my own read of the situation confirms that."

Zoning

The main fight may be waged in Helena next year, but some Montana cities are already using zoning to chip away at medical marijuana businesses.

Whitefish City Council passed an "urgency ordinance" in early December banning medical marijuana businesses for three months so the Whitefish Planning and Building Department could investigate ways to appropriately zone them. In the decision, the council determined that such establishments "could be immediately detrimental to, harmful to, and a threat to the peace, property, health, safety, and welfare of the city and its inhabitants." Billings tabled a similar ordinance in November. Just this week, Great Falls passed a zoning ordinance that prohibits medical marijuana businesses from opening within city limits for three months.

Allen St. Pierre, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), says that land use and zoning is "the great frontier" in marijuana law reform. He says hundreds of communities, most notably in California and Colorado, have moved to ban medical marijuana. Most recently, the Los Angeles City Council passed a new ordinance in January that puts strict controls on where dispensaries can operate, and will force hundreds to close.

Expert analysis

One of the main concerns about the rising number of patients and increased competition among caregivers is the quality of the actual medicine. Montana Botanical Analysis (MBA), based in Bozeman, calls itself the first state laboratory "dedicated to the study and analysis of medical cannabis." Founded by Dr. Michael Geci last year, the lab purports to, among other things, measure the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in strains of medical cannabis, as well as test for mold, pesticides, heavy metals and other potentially harmful contaminants.

A similar operation in Missoula, CannabAnalysis Labs, expects to open in the next month or two. Rose Habib, a chemist and founder of the lab, says she'll test product for its cannabinoid profile, with a special focus on working with extracts for edibles. "We will make your extract, and test it," she says.

With more and more caregivers cropping up, quality control labs could serve as an important step for concerned caregivers and patients as they try to bring legitimacy to their medicine.

Decriminalization or legalization

The pro-marijuana movement has never had as much political momentum, media exposure and general support as it does today. A huge portion of that swing is due to 14 states legalizing the use of medical marijuana and generations of Drug War rhetoric being stripped away.

St. Pierre recently told OC Weekly the movement's "almost at a zeitgeist," meaning enough favorable forces have come together to help make reform possible.

"I definitely think the tide of public opinion is moving rapidly toward favoring legalization for adults with regulation and taxation," says Daubert of Patients and Families United. "I think probably the biggest driving factor in that is budget considerations."

Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron says legalizing marijuana would benefit taxpayers nationwide by roughly $25 billion per year in both generating new tax income and eliminating the cost of enforcement. John Gettman, a former NORML president who now works for DrugScience.org, claims legalizing marijuana would benefit taxpayers by $42 billion per year.

"The solution to many of the current medical marijuana program's woes and complexities and gray areas," says John Masterson of Montana NORML, "is to just drop the 'medical' and have a regulated system for all adults."

Skylar Browning contributed additional reporting to the story
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