News & Features

Medical Marijuana Takes Root

The Healing Center has a budding business in Kalispell

With distribution locations across the state, Michael Smith claims to have the largest medical marijuana collective in Montana, at least in terms of geographical range. But there is one obvious missing link in his network: Northwest Montana. That’s about to change.

Sometime this month, a branch of The Healing Center, Smith’s Bozeman-based collective, will open in Kalispell. Polson and Whitefish are next, though Whitefish has imposed a temporary moratorium on all medical marijuana businesses.

Smith said he hopes to work with city officials in Whitefish to change the language of its urgency ordinance to take away the limit of three patients per caregiver. As written now, caregivers with three patients or fewer operate under a “home occupation” designation, rather than a business, and are not included in the moratorium. But Smith argues that it’s illegal to assign any patient limit, three or otherwise.

It’s unclear whether the urgency ordinance will be a moot point by the time Smith and the city work out their differences. If Smith sues, the litigation could extend past the urgency ordinance’s life span. At that point, the permanent law’s language will be different than the temporary ordinance, perhaps to Smith’s liking.

In the event of a lawsuit, Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps believes the city is on sturdy ground. He said state law allows urgency ordinances to impose outright moratoriums on lawful endeavors for up to six months while officials establish a permanent law.

Billings considered a similar temporary ordinance in November, but voted to table it after medical marijuana proponents spoke at a public meeting. Smith sent an attorney who threatened to sue if the law was passed.

Whitefish has implemented urgency ordinances twice before, for casinos and a storm water drainage law called the critical areas ordinance. Both times the city was challenged in court. Both times, Phelps said, the city won. The city lost a case over how the critical areas ordinance was administered, but not whether the law was valid.

“If they sue us, it won’t accomplish anything for them, but that’s their choice,” Phelps said. “That’s why this interim zoning ordinance exists. If something wants to open in your town that the zoning ordinances aren’t prepared for, it allows you to maintain the status quo until a permanent zoning ordinance can be enacted.”

Smith has met with two attorneys. He points to a recent ruling in Centennial, Colo., in which a judge ruled that it’s illegal for cities to ban medical marijuana dispensaries if allowed by state law. Referring to Phelps, if a lawsuit does occur, Smith said: “He will lose.”

The Healing Center, registered as a nonprofit with the state, has seven “brick and mortar” collectives already open, with another operating in Billings without a fixed location. Three more in Northwest Montana would give The Healing Center 11 total. All of the collectives combined serve about 400 patients and counting, Smith said. His Web site is www.thehealingcentermt.com.

Each collective operates independently, Smith said, though each uses The Healing Center name and marketing potential. Smith helps the collectives get off their feet, charges an initial fee and then an annual renewal fee, but he doesn’t collect royalties. Smith already has someone selected to run the Kalispell branch and, as of last week, believed he would find a building to lease soon.

Smith said he wants to be in town, but he doesn’t plan on being overtly conspicuous.

“I don’t intend to be on Main Street so when the tourists show up in the summer their kids say, ‘Look there’s a pot store,’” Smith said.

Caused by years in the construction industry, Smith said he has 50 percent nerve damage in one arm. He said the best medicine for his aches is cannabis – Smith prefers the word “cannabis” instead of marijuana.

Perhaps the biggest inspiration for Smith’s foray into the medical marijuana business is his son, who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident and became one of the first minors in Colorado to get a medical marijuana card, he said. His son, like Smith, uses cannabis for pain instead of pharmaceuticals. Smith also has a collective in Colorado and is looking to open more there.

One of Smith’s patients, who asked not to be named, is a 59-year-old retired ironworker who used to be on a steady diet of opiates such as oxycodone to ease his chronic back pain. Now he rarely uses pharmaceuticals, instead opting for cannabis.

He lives in Kalispell with his wife, who is also looking into getting a prescription for her arthritis and other conditions. His wife says cannabis has an unfair stigma, but believes it’s a much better alternative than “the hard stuff.”

Smith recently finalized a licensing agreement to sell the rights of his Livingston collective to Los Angeles-based Health Sciences Group, Inc. He said it’s the first public partnership collective in Montana.

The Montana Medical Marijuana Act passed in 2004 as a voter initiative with 62 percent approval. Under the law, patients must obtain a written certification from a doctor and then register with the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Through November, there were 5,440 patients registered in the state, and another 495 with expired cards. Flathead County had the second most active patients with 753, trailing only Gallatin County’s 837.

Smith disputes the requirement to register with the state. In his interpretation of the law, a patient is legal to obtain medical marijuana without registering with DPHHS. Smith and Tom Daubert, one of the 2004 law’s architects, have publicly disagreed over this matter.

Medical marijuana collectives are essentially private clubs serving as intermediaries between registered patients and caregivers, rather than for-profit businesses. The Healing Center’s collective in Kalispell will likely have a receptionist up front, along with legal hemp-based products such as shirts and informational packets on the laws and benefits of medical marijuana.

In the back, card-carrying patients will have access to marijuana, in raw form to be smoked and in products, such as baked goods, to be eaten. Tinctures are also available. All of Smith’s marijuana is organically grown. Smith said, since smoking anything harms the lungs, he encourages patients to ingest the medicine.

“We’re really trying to get people away from smoking it,” he said.

As an entrepreneur, Smith sees financial potential in his business, though he doesn’t plan to get wealthy off of it: “I’m not poor, but I’m not rich.” He does plan, however, to use the profit to promote industrial hemp. He is an advocate of the organization Montana Hemp Farmers.

“Anyone who’s an entrepreneur and starts out with a grassroots effort stands to gain some financial gain, but it’s what they do with it that’s important,” Smith said. “Hemp – that’s where we’re going next. This thing is way bigger than medical marijuana.”

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