Montana Still Grappling with Medical Marijuana Industry

As states across the West decide on legalization, Montana has a decision to make about medical marijuana

By Dillon Tabish

Voters in Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C. decided this week whether marijuana should be legal, potentially joining Colorado and Washington as the latest states in the U.S. to jump onboard the reform movement.

In Montana, where tension and suspicion still swirl around the drug after a tumultuous series of events over the last decade, the potential for legalization appears to be waning.

Political science students at Montana State University Billings conducted a survey of 410 random residents recently and roughly 60 percent were opposed to the idea of legalizing recreational use of marijuana. Thirty percent supported legalization, according to the poll, which was released Oct. 17.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the nation’s largest organization working solely on marijuana policy reform from its headquarters in D.C., announced earlier this year that it would help fund a voter initiative to legalize and regulate marijuana for Montana adults in 2016, but only if local supporters were able to raise roughly $200,000.

That effort has all but fizzled out, due to an apparent lack of public support.

“The idea was if Montanans were willing to invest in that effort, then MPP was willing to go there,” said Chris Lindsey, a Missoula-based legislative analyst for MPP. “Some donations were made, but we haven’t really seen the kind of numbers that lead us to think it will happen.”

Similar efforts have failed in the past and the latest failed attempt reflects a dismal view among Montana residents in regard to recreational marijuana use.

“I think it’s dead in Montana,” Mort Reid, president of the Montana Cannabis Information Association, said of the legalization movement in the state.

Instead, attention is focused on the state’s medical marijuana industry, which is quietly – and cautiously – making a slow comeback in Big Sky Country.

In October, there were 9,619 registered medical marijuana patients in Montana, including 1,151 in Flathead County, the second most of any county in the state behind Gallatin (1,869). There are 363 providers statewide and 48 in Flathead County, also the second most in Montana, again behind Gallatin (93).

The latest figures, compiled by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, show an increase of 938 patients since June 2012. The number of providers has dipped from June 2012, when there were 390 providers.

According to the state statistics, the majority of medical marijuana patients – 6,307 – are enrolled because of “severe chronic pain.” The next leading conditions are “intractable nausea or vomiting” – 998 – and “painful peripheral neuropathy” – 993.

The medical marijuana industry has existed in limbo in recent years following a boom-and-bust sequence that saw a drastic rise and fall among providers and users, as well as public opinion.

In 2004, Montana voters approved the controlled production and use of medical marijuana. But the law lacked certain safeguards or oversight for the upstart industry, and by 2011, there were roughly 30,000 patients and 4,438 providers.

The spike led federal agents to crack down and raid dispensaries across the state. In response to the rampant growth, the 2011 Legislature passed Senate Bill 423 to rein in the number of providers and users by preventing the commercial sale of marijuana, among other regulations aimed at reducing medical use of the drug.

In 2012, Montana voters reacted to the sudden proliferation of marijuana and opted to side with lawmakers, rejecting a ballot initiative to overturn the Legislature’s 2011 law.

The industry challenged the 2011 law in court and U.S. District Judge James Reynolds largely agreed that the state needed to show a “rational basis” for overturning the original voter-approved law. Reynolds temporarily suspended the limits on profits and patient numbers, pausing the fatal blow of SB 423 until a final decision is issued, which is expected to arrive in the coming months.

In the meantime, Reid and the MCIA have crafted a list of proposals to bring before the upcoming Legislature that they say would add regulations to the industry and prevent rampant growth and abuse.

“I think a lot of the wrong people jumped into the industry for the wrong reasons back then. And I think a lot of them that weren’t willing play by the rules are gone now,” Reid said. “So the ones that are left in the industry are deeply invested in it and are more serious about working in the frameworks of the law.”

The MCIA is proposing a list of changes to the state’s medical marijuana law, including designating the Montana DPHHS as the oversight agency; increasing provider application fees to cover the cost of inspecting facilities; allowing providers to hire employees; and adding post-traumatic stress disorder and epilepsy to the list of qualifying illnesses for cardholders.

“The industry now is much more reformed than what it was in 2011, when there was a community backlash. It was an industry that didn’t have enough controls at the time,” Reid said. “But right now there’s a lot of sick people in Montana that are suffering and they will be deprived of any legal access to medical marijuana if SB 423 takes effect.”

Update (4:49 p.m., Nov. 3): The DPHHS provided updated statistics for the number of cardholders and providers across Montana.