Nipped in the bud? 

Businesses fear fallout of medical marijuana reform

Over a year ago, as Montana's medical marijuana industry was taking off, a couple dozen providers sat at tables in a Missoula conference center, trying to enlist new patients. Jim Bradford's table was the most nondescript. He brought three or four small jars of cannabis, the strains' names Sharpied on strips of duct tape. He didn't have signs or brochures or even a business card. Sporting a Griz T-shirt, camouflage cap, and goatee, he stood out among some of the more eccentric and established marijuana growers.

Just weeks before, Bradford was one of more than 400 workers laid off when Smurfit-Stone Container shuttered its paperboard mill in Frenchtown. Bradford had worked the mill's shipping dock for the bulk of his nearly 31 years there. He figured he was too old to return to school for retraining, so he decided to try to make a living as a medical marijuana provider. He came to the convention, at the Hilton Garden Inn, hoping to add another patient or two to the six he then supplied.

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

At the time, Bradford, who has four children, asked that his name not be published, fearing that some of his family members and friends might disapprove of his new occupation. But now, with Montana lawmakers considering legislation that would put him out of a job again, he finds himself vocally defending an industry that, in six months, got him off the long list of Montanans collecting unemployment checks.

Bradford now serves 17 patients as part of Three Rivers Farmacy, in Missoula. "I certainly haven't replaced what I was making at the mill," he says, "but I'm hanging in there."

In the coming weeks, the Montana Legislature will decide whether to rein in the booming medical marijuana industry. Whatever action it takes could have huge implications for Bradford and thousands of other patients, caregivers, and ancillary businesses around the state.

Essentially, two bills remain in play. One, House Bill 161, which passed the House and Senate and is on the way to Gov. Brian Schweitzer's desk, would repeal the Medical Marijuana Act altogether. Another, Senate Bill 423—which some opponents call "repeal lite"—aims to drastically reduce the number patients on the state's rolls and, as currently written, bans storefront dispensaries like Three Rivers Farmacy and prohibits providers from earning a profit.

"There are providers who have invested their life savings for the benefit of patients, and they will essentially be bankrupt now," says Jim Gingery, director of the Montana Medical Growers Association.

A survey-based economic analysis conducted by the association earlier this year found that roughly 70 percent of the employees in the medical marijuana industry were, like Bradford, previously unemployed. The study estimates that the industry has created about 1,400 new jobs, and Gingery believes outlawing or severely restricting medical marijuana would send at least twice as many people to the unemployment line, because of the other businesses that have expanded to serve the medical marijuana industry.

click to enlarge Missoula dispensary Zoo Mountain Natural Care would be forced to lay off nine employees if the Montana Legislature repeals the Medical Marijuana Act. Its storefront, on the corner of Orange and Front streets, was vacant for about a year before the business leased it. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Missoula dispensary Zoo Mountain Natural Care would be forced to lay off nine employees if the Montana Legislature repeals the Medical Marijuana Act. Its storefront, on the corner of Orange and Front streets, was vacant for about a year before the business leased it.

The economic consequences may be acute in Missoula. Of the state's 29,948 patients, 4,451 live in Missoula County, tops in the state. The county's also home to more caregivers—739—than any other county. It's difficult to gauge the cumulative economic contribution of those caregivers, but consider that just one local storefront dispensary, Zoo Mountain Natural Care, employs nine and has a total monthly payroll of $22,000, according to founder Logan Head.

The effect wouldn't be limited only to those who grow and use marijuana to treat medical conditions. Lambros broker Jerry Ford is among the local commercial real estate agents who are watching the debate play out in Helena. He's leased to caregivers a handful of storefronts and warehouses around town. Some would-be entrepreneurs, he says, have leased spaces but are waiting to see how the legislature acts before opening up shop.

"It will have some impact," Ford says of repeal or strict regulation. "It won't make a great, great big difference in the commercial market, I don't think. Some people disagree with me."

Tighter regulation would also mean a drop in advertising by medical marijuana providers, which would ding businesses such as the Independent.

Attorneys, too, could see a slump in business. The effects might even extend to Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who has voted in favor of both HB 161 and SB 423. Wittich Law Firm attorneys have worked for caregivers, and the debate, he says, has forced him to "divorce myself from how these things affect me personally or my business."

"If medical marijuana is repealed," he says, "would there be economic effects? Certainly. If it's more heavily regulated would there be economic impacts? Certainly. But that has to be balanced against the other public policy goals that we need to look at."

Tom Daubert, of Patients and Families United, slams Wittich and other Republicans for abandoning the free-market principles they campaigned on. "It certainly appears hypocritical and inconsistent," Daubert says. "Republicans claim to prefer small, less-intrusive government, too, but they're contradicting those principles here as well, not to mention the principles of freedom and liberty."

Bradford, the caregiver, recently penned a letter to Schweitzer and all Montana legislators, urging them to reject the bills that would put him out of business. "I am self-employed and 'making it,'" he wrote, "are you really going to take that away from me now?"

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