New Regulations Expected to Close Dispensary Doors

By Beacon Staff

With new restrictions on medical cannabis expected to become law without the governor’s signature, medical marijuana advocates said they hope to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the legislation, but they will likely have to shut down dispensary operations on June 30.

The law changes, brought by Billings Republican Sen. Jeff Essman’s Senate Bill 423, prohibit the sale of medical marijuana to cardholders and also limits providers to growing marijuana for three patients at a time.

The bill also tightens requirements for who can possess a medical marijuana card and gives cities and law enforcement more authority to monitor and regulate providers.

SB 423 passed both chambers of the Legislature before Gov. Brian Schweitzer offered amendatory vetoes, which included allowing providers to charge for the marijuana and increasing their patient allowance to 25.

Lawmakers rejected these additions, but did accept some of Schweitzer’s amendments, passing a revised bill.

According to the Associated Press, Schweitzer said he still believed the bill would prevent access to medical cannabis for some who need it, but the current law could not stand. Schweitzer has 10 days to sign or veto the bill once he receives it; if he does neither, it becomes law.

“Is the bill perfect? Not close,” Schweitzer said. “But can I veto this thing and allow the wild, wild west to go on for the next couple of years? I don’t think so.”

For 15 employees at a Kalispell dispensary, the new law means they will have to shut down once the law takes effect on July 1. Manager Ian Baker said the new law essentially tells 30,000 medical marijuana cardholders in Montana that they need to grow their own cannabis if they want to continue participating in the program.

Since growing marijuana costs money, Baker said most caregivers would not provide it for free. Many will likely take advisory roles on how to grow the plants, since there are no seminars or classes offered.

“There’s so many people who don’t have a clue on how to do that sort of stuff, there’s going to be a lot of coaching,” Baker said.

Dispensary employees also provide guidance on different marijuana strains, Baker said. This means cardholders who try growing may not know what they are actually growing, he said.

Baker also said he believes a fair share of cardholders will likely not be able to renew their cards once the tougher regulations kick in. Other cardholders will probably stop using cannabis for fear of being considered criminals.

“There are individuals who won’t use it any more and those are the people who didn’t use it until it became medicinal,” Baker said. “It’s really dehumanizing to be in that position – to give up something that’s been improving your life – to not be considered a criminal.”

Jim Gingery, executive director of the Montana Medical Growers Association, said his association is still holding out hope that Schweitzer will veto the law, calling it a “black market bill.”

“It’s a bad bill; it’s bad for Montana, it’s really not good in any way,” Gingery said.

MMGA intends to gather enough signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to repeal the law, which Gingery said would require about 100,000 names.

“We’re quite certain the signatures will not be that difficult to reach considering the grassroots feeling about this particular law,” he said. “It’s a repeal bill that’s not called repeal.”

Gingery also said lawmakers’ decision to pass the bill would likely have negative consequences for the next election.

“We’re quite certain that in 2012 that many of these legislators will be able to retain their day job and won’t have to take four months off to punish patients,” Gingery said.

At the Kalispell dispensary, a 23-year-old employee who spoke with the Beacon on the condition of anonymity said this job supported his 8-month-old child. Now, with employment prospects slim in the Flathead, he said there is a possibility he will end up heading out of state to find work.

Baker said his dispensary would keep its doors open as long as possible, but he is also keeping an eye on employment prospects.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.