From inside the frosted windows of Bobby Long's downtown Missoula storefront, the steady stream of curious pedestrians appear as mere silhouettes. They stop momentarily to study the molecular designs on the glass or read the business description printed in black lettering on the door. A sign out front advertises an upcoming First Friday show Oct. 7. Occasionally someone will lift a hand to the handle and attempt to enter, only to find the door securely locked.
Long watches these moments from his perch behind the front counter of Flower. He moved into the Higgins Avenue space in early August, relocating from a basement suite just down the block beneath the old Dark Room. Over the last two months, he's transformed the interior into an attractive, tranquil home for his business—antique wood shelving, blue paint with gold trim, a pair of wall-hanging fireplaces. A small plastic rack near the counter holds a set of custom Bic lighters with the business name and logo. The only thing missing are customers. For that, Long needs Initiative 182 to pass on Election Day.
"I've always thought it was important in cannabis therapy to provide a professional, relaxing atmosphere," Long says. "There's a reason there's tea and honey on the side, there's a reason why there's a little fireplace with flames, there's a reason why we play soothing music in here. It's all to create that environment for patients where they feel comfortable, because it's sort of a hostile world out there in Montana right now."
Long is one of nearly 100 medical marijuana providers statewide who were forced to shut down their operations Aug. 31. Under a slate of new laws, those providers had a choice: limit themselves to three patients or remove their names from the state registry. The restriction put providers in an impossible position both ethically and financially, and left 11,850 patients statewide without a source for the substance many of them simply call "medicine."
Flower's doors are locked, and Long, who also works as a commercial and advertising photographer in Missoula, is no longer providing medical marijuana to the patients who have relied on him for years. But as the industry entered the two-month purgatory between implementation and Nov. 8, when voters will decide on the less restrictive rules proposed in I-182, Long began to fill his new street-level digs with dialogue. He rushed to get a show up in time for September's First Friday art walk featuring photos of eight of the marijuana strains he's cultivated, a project he titled Cannabis Expressions. The side windows in Flower's entryway were left unfrosted to allow passersby to view the art at all times, and he's hosted four-hour open houses in the store every Friday since. His goal is to force the public to face head-on the issue they'll vote on in November.
The first phase of the project focused on the plant, Long says. The next will focus on the patients. On Oct. 7, Long will unveil a series of photographs called Patient Expressions that challenge visitors to look directly into the eyes of those recently denied access to medical marijuana. He's spent weeks working in a makeshift studio inside Flower to capture images of many of the people he once provided for—patients battling cancer, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain. He says it's a huge thing to ask of people whose medical conditions and cardholder status are protected by law.
"Certainly it's not something that any of us want to be doing," Long says. "It is a little awkward asking someone to expose themselves, to talk about their protected private medical history, to ask them to volunteer that information to the public. But not nearly as painful as it was to watch them lose access entirely. That was the part that really sucked."
As Long edits photos for the show on a recent Thursday afternoon, one of his photography subjects rolls into Flower in a wheelchair. Levi Ortivez, a U.S. Army veteran and graduate gemologist from Ennis, wasn't actually a patient of Long's. He's been a Montana cardholder for five years, he says, even before his muscle spasms and the shooting pains in his limbs were finally attributed to progressive multiple sclerosis. Ortivez met Long when curiosity prompted him to stop by one of Flower's open houses last month. He's come by repeatedly in subsequent weeks just to chat with Long, and their banter indicates the two have quickly built quite a rapport. To Ortivez, Flower is bright, comforting, out in the open—everything he feels the industry can and should be in Montana.
"I'm proud of a place like this," Ortivez says. "He's not promoting bad things. He's only for medical, not recreational, and he's standing straight up. He's not hiding. I'm not hiding from nobody. Why should I hide? I should be honored. I should be holding my head up and be able to tell my story."
Long faced a tough decision as the state's new medical marijuana restrictions loomed. His knee-jerk reaction was to simply shut down his business, rather than go through the pains of selecting just three patients to continue with. But as he considered the long-term loss to genetics in his inventory, he realized he had to do something to keep a few plants alive.
Medical-grade cannabis is difficult to come by, he says, and for every strain on his shelf, there have been "10, at least" over the years that haven't made the cut. Long picked his three neediest patients, those with the lowest incomes, with the stipulation that he would not be flowering the plants he saved or providing any marijuana until after Election Day.
"That allowed them to be able to retain their card where they otherwise would have gotten revoked," Long says. "We're just keeping things alive and then waiting for the thing to come back around."
Even with the unorthodox move, Long had to destroy the bulk of his grow. That included a high-cannabidiol, or CBD, strain he'd been experimenting with for nearly two years. CBDs, Long says, are particularly effective in relieving seizures stemming from conditions like epilepsy. His hope was to cross-breed the strain to produce a product with high CBDs and lower levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive substance in cannabis commonly known as THC. In the end, he chose to save the "tried and true" strains his patients have long relied on at the expense of future potential.
"I had to make some hard choices," he says.
Pam Superneau empathizes with Long's situation regarding his patients and status as a provider. Even though he's no longer supplying her with medication, she still refers to him as "family." Superneau recalls a day several years ago when she plucked zucchini and green tomatoes for Long from her garden, after Long told her he had a big date that night. It was early on in his days as a provider, back when he was still making house calls for patients, and he'd stopped by her Missoula home to drop off her latest prescription. She handed Long the veggies and instructed him to fry them up with garlic and butter and melt hot pepper cheese on top. Serve that, she said, and the girl would be "hooked forever."
Long wound up marrying the girl from that date, Kate, and Superneau—who became Long's first patient in 2009—attended the wedding. Superneau's still convinced it's all thanks to her recipe.
"If we needed help putting a shrub out in the front, he'd be there to help you," she says of Long. "It's not just medical marijuana. He's just a down-to-earth good person and would do anything for the people that he cares about."
When Long explained to Superneau why he wanted her to pose for a photograph in his new store, she instantly agreed. Superneau turned to medical marijuana to alleviate the pain and frustration stemming from her muscular fibrosis, a condition she developed after a workplace accident and a series of failed surgeries. Over the years her legs have permanently stiffened, preventing her from engaging in the activities that were once a daily part of her life. A framed photo on her living room wall of her skiing at Montana Snowbowl is evidence of the loss that has also fueled anger and depression.
"I used to ski every day," she says. "I was a heavy equipment operator, I was very outdoorsy ... Not to be able to do those things anymore is really frustrating and medical marijuana helped me with that, to come to grips with my anger over all those issues."
Now Superneau and thousands of others like her have been forced to decide whether to seek relief from pharmaceuticals or secure the medicine they've come to rely on through illegal means, such as the black market or transporting legal recreational marijuana from nearby states. Superneau isn't keen on the former; medical marijuana actually helped her dial back her dependence on painkillers, though she's maintained her prescriptions. Nor is the latter option very appealing. Montana is treating medical marijuana patients "like criminals," Superneau says.
"What our government is doing to the patients of this state, they're taking us all out in a boat, dumping us in the middle of Flathead Lake without a life jacket and saying, 'Okay, swim if you can,'" she continues. "Those that can swim will. Those that can't are going to drown."
If I-182 does pass, Kennley Inman will be coming up on his third year as one of Long's patients. The 26-year-old from Polson has been using medical marijuana for six years, first to relieve severe chest pains and body aches and later to alleviate the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy used to combat his T-Cell Lymphoma. At one point during radiation treatment, Inman says, his entire mouth was a blister, and he was on a liquid-only diet for nearly four months. His weight dropped from 210 pounds to 137. Eventually, medical marijuana helped him regain his appetite, soothed the pain and freed him from the cocktail of pills he'd been prescribed.
"If I didn't have cannabis, I'd be stuck taking at least four to six different pills for my symptoms," Inman says. "Then I'd have to worry about 10 to 30 different symptoms coming up just from one of those pills ... I'd rather worry about getting the munchies and falling asleep for four hours. It's safer.'"
Inman's participation in Long's photography exhibit stems partly from a desire to stand up and fight for a medication that's allowed him to lead a normal life with his wife and two sons. But he also considers it a show of solidarity with Long, who he realizes has risked a lot in the hopes of ensuring Montana doesn't slide backwards on medical marijuana.
Pot shops on every corner. That's how Steve Zabawa, I-182's chief opponent, characterized the ultimate outcome if the initiative succeeds. Zabawa launched a countermeasure this year in the form of Initiative 176, which aimed to completely repeal medical marijuana and conform the state with federal law. His organization, Safe Montana, has attributed its opposition to the Montana Marijuana Program to a litany of concerns, including the addiction issues they claim can arise from marijuana use and the potential spread of "Colorado Craziness" to the Treasure State.
Zabawa's initiative failed to gain enough signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot. He promptly launched a statewide opposition campaign to I-182, spending tens of thousands of dollars on billboards and television ads. In late September, backers of I-182 responded with a campaign practices complaint against Safe Montana claiming it had failed to disclose the purchase of those billboards. Safe Montana fired back with a complaint of its own, alleging Montana Citizens for I-182 had conducted "deceptive dark money funding practices."
As the back-and-forth continues, Long hopes Flower will stand as a testament to the professional, above-board manner in which Montana's medical marijuana industry can conduct itself. When pressed, he's reluctant to picture what Flower might look like fully operational. He knows he'll have smell-proof packaging, child-proof containers for edibles and not a single pot leaf displayed anywhere in the store. But he doesn't get too far ahead of himself. Despite upgrading to a street-level downtown storefront, he's wary of I-182's chances and worried about voters' continued perception of the industry. In fact, the motivation to turn Flower into a forum for public discussion came from his sense that the real message about medical marijuana hasn't reached enough Montanans yet.
"It started to sink in," Long says of Flower's increased presence. "'Wow. I have this really powerful platform. Maybe I can keep doing something.'"
To a degree, Patient Expressions could also be viewed as Long's story as a provider. He originally entered the program as a patient himself in 2008, when he turned to cannabis to alleviate long-term back spasms and pain incurred from a skiing accident in his 20s. But he says seeing so many other patients with various conditions benefit from medical marijuana prompted him to start providing for others.
Superneau hopes to attend this month's First Friday event. Inman also plans on being there. Long has invited the other participating patients—patients with Lyme disease, Crohn's and epilepsy—to show up and share their tales in person. Throughout the month of October, he says, he'll be leaving his photography studio set up at Flower and open the doors one day a week for any other patients, his or otherwise, to come in and be photographed as well. The whole idea behind the show is to empower those who have been denied their chosen form of medication, to share their stories with a larger audience. They're difficult to hear at times, he cautions, but they need to be heard.
"I have to commend the patients that were willing to do this because they do face negative consequences from this," Long says. "But they realize the importance, that this is the time, this is the moment in which Montana is going to move forward on this issue or backwards. We are not going to stay the same, and honestly after all of these years of dancing around in this gray area, I am thankful for that."
How Montana got to this point
On Aug. 31, a new set of laws governing the Montana Marijuana Program went into effect. These laws have been the subject of intensive litigation since 2011, when they were passed by the Montana Legislature as part of Senate Bill 423, sponsored by then-Sen. Jeff Essman, R-Billings. Providers are now limited to only three patients, and while patients did have the option of becoming their own provider, many were left without access to medicine.
According to the latest data from the Montana Marijuana Program, there were 12,730 patients enrolled as of Sept. 14, and 11,850 of those patients have no provider. The figures are a stark contrast to what state officials recorded the month before the new restrictions started. In August, Montana had 13,034 enrolled cardholders and only 2,808 of them were without a provider.
The total of providers in the state has also dropped notably in that time, from 512 in August to 457 in September.
To counteract these developments, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and other medical marijuana advocates gathered 27,550 signatures to get Initiative 182 on the Nov. 8 ballot. The initiative would repeal the three-patient limit on providers, allow providers to hire employees to cultivate, dispense and transport marijuana, and add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions. It would also revise the language in Montana law to address manufacturing and use of marijuana-infused products and remove law enforcement authority to conduct unannounced inspections of medical marijuana facilities. For more on the specifics of I-182, check out the Montana Secretary of State’s elections page at sos.mt.gov/Elections.