Montana Cannabis Company, a medical marijuana dispensary in Evergreen, was oddly empty last Wednesday. The glass cases that usually display owner Matthew Wymer’s products stood void, housing only tie-dyed shelf liners and a piece of paper listing marijuana strains.
Wymer, who said he has been a caregiver for a couple years and opened his storefront last month, said he usually sees 10 to 15 patients a day.
“Yesterday and today I’ve seen zero,” he said.
The medical marijuana community in the Flathead is spooked, he said, after federal agents executed 26 search warrants on several medical marijuana facilities throughout the state on March 14.
“It’s sketchy right now; there’s a whole lot of people running around like chickens with their heads cut off,” Wymer said.
Several warrants were issued for the Flathead, including on businesses in Kalispell, Olney, Whitefish and Columbia Falls.
Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for the District of Montana, said in a prepared statement that the raids were the culmination of a specific, 18-month investigation into drug trafficking and criminal enterprises operating in the Big Sky state.
The warrants were served where “there is probable cause that the premises were involved in illegal and large-scale trafficking of marijuana,” Cotter said.
Cotter added that individuals with illnesses who are in “clear and unambiguous compliance with state law” were not the focus of the investigation.
Still, for some members of the medical marijuana community in the Flathead, the raids caused confusion and raised fears about running a state-sanctioned but federally illegal business.
“I think there’s some definite unrest,” said Brad McMillan of Four Seasons Gardening near Columbia Falls. “People are afraid of becoming criminals doing what they were told they could do.”
Montana voters approved the Medical Marijuana Act in 2004, but the federal government still considers marijuana an illegal substance. The state law faced repeal in the Legislature this month, but the effort stalled. It remains unclear whether other legislation aimed at tightening marijuana rules will be successful.
McMillan said the lack of clear medical marijuana regulations from the state allows for ambiguity, and it is an issue he hopes lawmakers will address.
“This whole community has been screaming for guidance for some time and not getting it,” McMillan said.
Mike Lee, owner of the dispensary Westside Medical, LLC, said last week’s raid made him nervous about running a medical marijuana business.
“Everyone was really scared,” Lee said, standing in his shop located near Columbia Falls on U.S. Highway 2.
The raids coincided with a failed 6-6 vote in the state Legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee to repeal Montana’s Medical Marijuana Act, prompting suspicion among dispensary owners that the raids were politically motivated. Although that feeling began to wane somewhat as more information about the investigation was released.
Good Medicine Providers and Northern Lights Medical, two different businesses located in the same building near Columbia Falls, were served warrants on March 16. Employees there, who spoke with the Beacon on the condition that their names are not used due to pending legal uncertainties, said the federal agents forced patients from their waiting rooms.
“They scared the crap out of our patients,” one employee said.
The employees said the federal agents took pounds of marijuana from the facility. One employee said they expected to have their computer back on the evening of March 16 and that they were confident Good Medicine Providers would reopen eventually.
Pot plants, computers, files and paraphernalia were seized from many of the locations around the state during the raids, according to reports from The Associated Press. The search warrants remain sealed.
One of the biggest raids was at a large greenhouse in Helena owned by Montana Cannabis. Good Medicine Providers is not affiliated with Montana Cannabis, the employees said.
As of press time, no criminal charges had been filed as a result of the raids. However, Ryan Wells, owner of Advanced Farming of Montana, said that it could benefit the medical cannabis community if illegal activities are prosecuted.
“A lot of people do work this properly and stay within the legal limits,” Wells said.
The mention of alleged money laundering in the search warrants raised red flags for some in the community, including Wells, who said the larger marijuana businesses are likely to get more attention from federal authorities than small- to mid-level operations.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, civil seizure warrants for financial institutions in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell sought to freeze up to $4 million in assets.
Since the warrants were part of a specific federal investigation, Wells said he is less nervous that federal agents will show up at his door.
“I don’t think you’ll see blatant raids,” he said.
Wells is a member of the Montana Medical Growers Association, which formed about a year ago as a way to present a unified voice for the community.
The Flathead chapter of the MMGA meets the first Thursday of every month at the Red Lion Hotel in Kalispell. Discussions include the lack of specific rules and clarity in state law, he said. Harsher regulations would help legitimize medical marijuana and illegally run businesses would have to tighten up their processes to remain viable.
“I think we just need hardcore regulations to weed all the bad people out,” he said. “I want regulations because it would stiffen up the competition.”
MMGA Executive Director Jim Gingery said every profession has a few bad seeds that it needs to deal with, but the alleged mistakes of a few are not a reflection on the entire industry.
“That doesn’t mean they’re all bad; it doesn’t mean you don’t have to have some rules in place, which is what we’ve been asking for,” Gingery said. “We didn’t ask for prohibition, we asked for reasonable rules in place.”
Some of the gray areas in medical marijuana law include caregiver-to-caregiver transactions, he said, which is something he hoped the Legislature would help clear up. MMGA has been working with lawmakers to help craft new industry regulations, he said.
Gingery, however, considers the recent raids a federal intrusion into Montana law that could have negative effects on the patients the dispensaries served.
“The result of these raids means that the patients served by those storefronts may not be able to legally obtain medicine for more than two months due to the backlog of processing at (the state health department),” Gingery said.
At his Evergreen store, Wymer said he expects the medical marijuana community to remain wary for some time after the raids, and is uncertain what it could mean for the future of his store.
“Everybody’s just kind of on red alert right now,” he said. “It’s enough to scare the hell out of everybody.”
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