In November of 2004, Montana made state history. For the first time in 75 years cannabis was legal, if only in a medical capacity. The state of Montana voted in its medical marijuana program under I-148 with a 62 percent margin. This new medical marijuana act allowed certain patients with specific medical conditions to alleviate their symptoms through the limited use of marijuana under medical supervision.
Under this new law, a cardholder who has a registered provider may possess up to one ounce of usable cannabis. If an individual does not have a provider listed, they may possess up to four mature plants and four seedlings. If two or more cardholders share a residence and do not have named providers, they may have a maximum of eight mature plants and eight seedlings. The start of the medical marijuana program in Montana was a bit slow with only 86 patients in the March of 2005, and it took 3 years before the entire program had more than 1000 patients in June of 2008.
Within the next three years, the program soared to more than 24,000 patients in 2011. This rapid rise in the number of patients being accepted and signed into the medical program concerned more conservative lawmakers and community members. With the advent of large “cannabis caravans” moving across the state in 2010-2011 the number of new patients skyrocketed. Individuals like Jason Christ, founder of Montana Caregivers Network, were known to sign up hundreds of patients within hours which lead to speculation on the quality of examinations that were being performed by the doctors that were involved. Christ, a polarizing figure in the history of Montana’s medical cannabis scene, has been in multiple lawsuits with previous business members and was convicted of Intimidation for calling in a bomb threat to a Verizon store in Missoula in August of 2010. Christ was also banned from the University of Montana’s campus for smoking weed in the law library. Needless to say, Jason Christ is quite the colorful individual and is blamed by many for much of the harsher laws that went into effect as a backlash to the “cannabis caravans”.
Jason Christ inhaling vaporized marijuana from a bag at his Missoula office in October 2010. Photo by Michael Gallacher/Missoulian
With mounting tensions between the members of the general public and politicians against the proliferation of marijuana and pro-cannabis supporters in late 2010 through 2011, things started to boil over. In May of 2010, two Billings dispensaries were firebombed with Molotov cocktails thrown through the windows and graffiti reading “Not in my town” was scrawled on the face of the business. As tensions continued to rise, new legislation was drafted in response to the drastic increases in patients and to the shocked horror of all in the medical marijuana program, in June of 2011, SB 423 went into effect which virtually nullified the medical marijuana program.
‘NOT IN OUR TOWN’ spray painted on a medical marijuana business storefront, May 10 in Billings. Photo by LARRY MAYER\ Billings Gazette
SB 423 was drafted to practically stop the medical marijuana program dead in its tracks by making it impossible for both providers to operate and cardholders (patients) to get access to their medicine. Providers could not assist more than three patients and could not receive any compensation from them. The state medical board was required to audit any doctor who recommended medical marijuana for more than 25 patients a year. Testing medical marijuana for safety and potency was illegal, and law enforcement officers could enter any provider’s location, even in private homes, to conduct a warrantless search. Most troubling, the law contained many serious errors, leaving medical marijuana providers vulnerable to criminal prosecution under even the best of circumstances. The fact that providers could not receive any compensation and were limited to three patients was the nail in the coffin for many dispensaries and patients alike.
In March 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration conducted raids across the state, the culmination of an 18-month investigation into whether the medical marijuana businesses were involved in large-scale drug trafficking and other federal crimes. Shops were closed down, and their operators went on to be charged under federal drug laws.
The number of patients dropped from close to 30,000 in June of 2011 to slightly over 8,000 just a year after. Medical marijuana advocates vocally denounced the new laws, blaming the state on taking too draconian of an approach and criticizing the government on losing out on thousands of dollars in revenue. As President Obama’s term got closer to the election, many hoped he would run under a banner of full legalization for the entire nation.
Federal agents, ATF, DEA, and FBI tore through a Helena greenhouse on March 14, 2011, destroying all the plants and crops in a matter of hours. Photo by Eliza Wiley/AP Photo/The Independent Record
In 2014 President Obama signed into effect the new 2014 Farm Bill, this bill was a provision that had not existed since the second world war. The new Farm Bill allowed each state to launch its own “pilot hemp program” to be monitored by the Department of Agriculture. This was the first time in nearly 70 years industrial hemp was legal to grow in large quantities. Montana decided later that year to join the program and hemp stated to be grown throughout Montana by old school farmers and burgeoning entrepreneurs alike. The struggle for control over the medical marijuana industry continued between advocates for the marijuana industry and the government.
The Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative, also known as I-182, was passed on November 8, 2016. The new initiative designed to address many of the problems introduced with SB-423 like the three patient limit and the inability to operate and monetary compensation for goods and services. Unfortunately, due to a clerical error in the initiative text, the measure was not going to repeal the three-patient limit for medical marijuana providers until June 30, 2017. Sponsors of the initiative intended the three-patient limit to be repealed upon the measure’s approval. Jim Goetz, an attorney for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, filed litigation in the Broadwater County District Court on November 22, 2016, asking the court to remove the three-patient limit immediately as intended by sponsors.
On December of the same year, Judge James P. Reynolds of the Montana 1st Judicial District Court resolved the error, thus terminating the three-patient limit effective immediately. Judge Reynolds stated, “The folks that are maybe the most in need are the least able to provide, to grow their own. I think speed is more important than niceties.” He determined that the date of June 30, 2017, was an error. Also in 2017, SB-333, otherwise known as the Montana Medical Marijuana Act. The Act laid the groundwork for a quarterly tax on marijuana which was brought down from 4% to 2% on dispensaries. It also promised a more robust licensing system. Also the use of Metrc software for the taking of “seed to sale product” tracking was instituted by DPHHS. Metrc, a Florida company, assists 12 States including the District of Columbia. With the opinion on their system being a general mixed bag of feelings from the local dispensary owners that are required to use their software. The main concern is ultimately how limited the software usability is as it pertains to the dispensary and grow manager. In 2019 the law has continued to change with multiple initiatives coming before the state senate.
SB 265, passed by both the House and Senate and awaiting the Governor’s signature as of April 2019, ushers in the ‘untethering’ of patients that many have been fighting for. This bill will remove the requirement that patients either grow for themselves or name only one provider they can purchase marijuana from. SB 265 will undoubtedly open up the industry in Montana, however, there are many provisions to the bill that define new fees and penalties, provide clarification, and more. Patients will not be able to buy more than 5 ounces of cannabis a month, though they may petition the department for an exception to the monthly limit on purchases. The request must be accompanied by a confirmation from the physician who signed the cardholder’s written certification that the cardholder’s debilitating medical condition warrants the purchase of an amount exceeding the monthly limit. Tax on gross sales will go up from 2% to 4% from October 2019 to September 2021. Some opponents said they were concerned about a provision that would let doctors grant some patients’ medical marijuana certifications using telemedicine. An attempt to amend that section out of the bill, on the basis that it could create too many loopholes in the rules, failed. Supporters of the provision say it would be beneficial for patients in rural Montana. New canopy tiers were also introduced, breaking the current 3-tier system (excluding the Caretaker Relative Provider option) into 10 tiers. Provider tier placement is dependent on sales. A dispensary fee was also put in the bill to the dismay of many providers in the state. The argument against this was that the steep fee for additional premises would inhibit access in rural areas. A provider with six or more premises must pay up $100,000 annually. SB 265 also further cemented vertical integration, clarifying that providers cannot share or lease equipment with each other.
“Ultimately, we see medical marijuana as medicine. And so it is the state’s duty to provide a regulatory framework that assures cancer patients and other types of patients that their medicine is safe and effective,” Representative Zach Brown said after the passage of SB 265.
People gather on a beautiful sunny day on September 7th, 2018, at the Montana State Hemp & Cannabis Festival
As we as a state forge into the future and build out the cannabis industry in general, we will need to understand that history is being made. It is the actions and the models that are formed now that will shape the industry to come. This is the first time in a long time on a national and state scale that cannabis has been this big of an industry as it is. The only way we as a community of providers, patients, and industry personnel are going to make it through the times to come is with collaboration. At the very least, we can come together as an industry, and more importantly a community, to work together for overall cannabis advocacy. The culture of the “zero sum game” that was fostered under the patient tethering is now over and with that, the opportunity for collaboration can start. It is a brave new future for the cannabis industry and there are more than a few changes to continue working toward, but the future is green.
This is Part 4 of our four-part series on the history of cannabis in Montana. We’re going all the way and taking you through major events that took cannabis from the Far East to the Last Best Place.
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Hudson, Matt. “Montana Health Department Sets Temporary Rules for Medical Marijuana.” The Billings Gazette, The Billings Gazette, 30 June 2017, billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/health-med-fit/montana-health-department-sets-temporary-rules-for-medical-marijuana/article_c4af6841-258b-5bad-a8a9-599e9d0a38d8.html.
“Montana House Endorses Medical Marijuana Reform Bill, Including “untethering” Patients.” KPAX.com (2019)Web. Apr 20, 2019.
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