In search of releaf 

With the future of medical marijuana in Montana uncertain, one Missoula provider has transformed a downtown storefront into a hub for discourse

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."

click to enlarge 1-i40cover.jpg

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."

  • photo courtesy of Bobby Long

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.

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Artist Lecture: Patrick Zentz, bi/cycle/extrapolated

Artist Lecture: Patrick Zentz, bi/cycle/extrapolated @ Missoula Art Museum

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