Maybe this is what the originators of Montana's Medical Marijuana Act had in mind: An old man with a cane, a young man in a wheelchair and a few other patients mingle in the waiting room of Montana Pain Management (MPM) on Third Street in Missoula. A receptionist calls names and pulls files, while the people receive the medicine they need. At first glance, it looks just like any other health care clinic.
Or maybe not. Unlike most clinics, there are no doctors at the facility and no nurses—only one owner, about 10 employees and a couple hundred marijuana plants budding beneath grow lights in two back rooms. The location is Missoula's first storefront dispensary for medical marijuana, and city officials say three other businesses have applied for permits to run similar operations in the area.
But, authorities wonder, are these businesses legal?
Rick Rosio, the owner of MPM, says his business operates within the limits of the state's nascent medical marijuana law. Montana voters approved the legislation in 2004, making limited amounts of the medicine available to qualified patients through a state licensed supplier, called a caregiver. Specifically, a caregiver can grow as many as six marijuana plants for a patient. Rosio says he's become the caregiver for, he estimates, about 350 patients, with eight to 10 new clients coming in every day. The state can't confirm Rosio's claim, but if it's true it means MPM can grow some 2,500 marijuana plants, and sell the medicine to patients whenever they need it.
MPM's volume has county attorneys questioning its legitimacy.
"The Medical Marijuana Act does not provide for businesses to essentially be caregivers," says Deputy Missoula County Attorney Andrew Paul. "I think it was contemplated that an individual person would assist a qualified patient by helping them to grow it and delivering it to the qualified patient. The law doesn't say anything about an LLC or co-ops or any of those types of those organizations, so it's really kind of nebulous...I don't think it's clear that they are legal."
The state has 4,486 registered medical marijuana patients and 1,402 active caregivers, according to the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services. Those numbers include 573 patients and 190 caregivers in Missoula County. Statewide, there are 28 caregivers who provide marijuana to 20 or more patients.
"When you have one person who is trying to collect hundreds of caregivers cards," Paul says, "that's a little bit of a red flag that this is not the type of caregiver that was contemplated by the Medical Marijuana Act. So that certainly seems to be someone who's trying to push the system."
Paul isn't alone in his concern over businesses like MPM. Statewide medical marijuana proponents worry that boldly testing the limits of the law could be detrimental to the movement and send the wrong message.
"This law is so precious as it is," says Tom Daubert, founder of Patients and Families United, a statewide support group for patients who use medical marijuana. "People should adhere to it and not risk causing public concern and backlash that isn't warranted."
Daubert says MPM's size, in particular, could present problems for what's already been a contentious battle to legitimize medical marijuana.
"Does [Rosio] have records that account fully for all marijuana produced and all marijuana sold?" Daubert asks. "Is it clear from those records that no marijuana went to any patients other than the ones who have registered him to be a caregiver?
"I am very uncomfortable with entrepreneurial operators trying to make the medical end of things faster and easier," he continues, "because it does smack of profiteering in ways that might not be medically legitimate."
Rosio doesn't see a problem. He runs MPM with confidence—he's already invested, he says, about $600,000 in the business—in part because he pays four attorneys to advise him at every turn how to stay on the right side of the law. He says he's worked closely with the Attorney General's office, and has invited city and county officials and police to tour his facility.
"We don't want this to be a mystery," Rosio says as he opens the door to one of MPM's white-walled grow rooms. A few "gardeners," as he calls them, tend to about 100 four-week-old, foot-high plants. In the next room another 100 or so planters hold eight-week-old plants, all reaching up toward rows of bright grow lights. And hundreds more grow in another facility in town, its location kept secret.
Rosio, who previously supplied medical marijuana in Livingston, also doesn't hide his desire to grow the business. He says he plans to hire a physician to diagnose patients with qualifying medical conditions on the spot. Those patients could then make Rosio their caregiver and buy medicine from him at a price determined by his income-based sliding scale, which he keeps internal. (He says ounces typically sell for between $300 and $350.) He expects to open more clinics in Kalispell, Whitefish, Helena and Great Falls that will follow the same business model as the Missoula location.
"I've worked tirelessly with a group of individuals to make this a reality," Rosio asserts. "Does it push the envelope? I think it's long overdue. But I think the model that we're doing...is what the law intended."