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Pot paranoia

by Matthew Frank

There's no sign out front, no indication at all that behind this locked strip-mall door near South Reserve Street, there's a room full of marijuana plants and a whiteboard listing the various strains that are sold. The discretion is understandable. Since the first wave of federal raids on Montana medical marijuana businesses in March 2011, 25 people have been indicted on federal drug charges, all facing years in prison. And a year ago, the Montana Legislature passed strict medical marijuana reforms. The industry has been decimated. When it was booming, the state's patient count topped 30,000. Today, it's down to 10,000. The number of medical marijuana providers has dropped from close to 5,000 to about 400. The cops showed up and the crowd dispersed.

But Rob Kinzinger is still here, dispensing medical marijuana to more than 100 patients around Missoula, one of the last providers still in business. The soft-spoken, bald former timber-mill worker knows that this operation could end any day, with the DEA knocking down the door with drawn guns or merely by a state judge upholding parts of the new medical marijuana law that were intended to put providers like Kinzinger out of business but were enjoined last year. Many left the business anyway. Virtually all the storefronts that popped up around Missoula are gone.

"I can't think off the top of my head of anybody who's still around," Kinzinger says.

click to enlarge Last plant standing: Rob Kinzinger - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

That troubles him, because he knows that a lot of marijuana patients—more than 4,000 statewide—don't have providers. Under the new state law, it's harder to obtain a medical marijuana card. Doctors have been hazed away from issuing them. And, as of last month, the fees are higher. "With so many places being shut down and so many people being scared to be in business, there are so many people out there who don't have a provider, who don't have a place to go," Kinzinger says. "Where are they going? To the black market. All [the feds] have done is create a bigger black market, forcing everybody to go back underground. I just don't see how it makes it better."

Kinzinger says he's lost at least 15 percent of his patients.

He's been here awhile, since well before the raids. He thinks he's survived because of his business model. He grows where he dispenses, meaning he's not transporting marijuana around the state. He's the business's only provider, so there's no uncertainty surrounding which plants are associated with which provider and which patients. And, perhaps most importantly, he says, there isn't a blinking neon pot leaf in the window. "I think that's the thing that a lot of people were missing in this whole thing—you don't need a big sign out front, 'Hey, here I am,'" he says. "It's legal and all, but why throw that in anybody's face? It's not about that."

Medical marijuana is still legal in Montana; federally, all marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. But Kinzinger doesn't talk much about that. He focuses on trying to carefully follow the state law, however murky, as the courts figure out how much of the new law is constitutional. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association challenged the new law last year, and it goes before the Montana Supreme Court May 30. Meanwhile, marijuana advocates were successful in placing a referendum of the new state law on the November 2012 ballot.

Kinzinger doesn't have a plan B. If he's shut down, he says, he'll be out looking for another job. "That's why I got into doing this," he continues. After working at the Stimson mill in Bonner for 15 years, "I couldn't find a job to save my life. ... I was running the whole shipping department out there, and it didn't amount to a hill of beans."

He left Stimson with debilitating back pain and prescriptions for narcotics, he says, which he blames for his ballooning to almost 400 pounds. He pulls out his ID, the photo taken a couple years ago: He was huge. But he quit the pills and turned to a plant, and the pounds were shed. His shirt now hangs on him.

"I've had patients come in whom I signed up in wheelchairs, and they walk through the door now," he says. "And it's not because of something that modern medicine has done. It's the marijuana. It reacts with certain diseases in that way. And when you see that, oh man, it just makes what I do so worth it."

Saved from drowning

by Skylar Browning

Long before David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson donned siren-red bathing suits and ran across your television set, the lasting image of a lifeguard included a perfectly bronzed physique, a whistle around the neck or twirled around the fingers, shades and a smear of sunscreen on the beak. They watched over us and we ended up watching just as much of them; real-life neighborhood heroes.

Not much of that iconic imagery fits lifeguards at Currents, Missoula's public indoor swimming pool. There's a whistle and plenty of people to watch—my goodness, is there a lot of screaming, splashing humanity to watch—but that's about it. There's no bronzed physique. No need for shades. Even less need for sunscreen. Instead, these thoroughly trained rescuers, capable of performing CPR on a child or lifting a distressed offensive lineman out of the deep end, are fending off much less glamorous elements than UV rays and hero worship.

There's the chlorine, which smells so strongly that you can feel it turning your hair green from the parking lot. There's the noise, which during busy weekends can ricochet off the pool's walls, creating a sound more piercing than a bushel of fire alarms. And don't even mention the AFRs. (This would be the polite acronym for "Accidental Fecal Release," or poop in the pool.)

All lifeguards have to deal with a certain amount of chaos, chemicals and crap, but most at least get the perks bestowed upon the likes of The Hoff and Pam. It's a little harder to find the rewards for the Currents crew.

"We do get to work outside at Splash for a few months during the summer," offers Chelsea Beckwith, a 22-year-old University of Montana student who has worked as a lifeguard for a year and a half. "That's how we put up with it all winter."

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