Medical marijuana patients and the businesses that serve them are waiting for the next legal turn after a court filing last Friday.
Advocates for the drug asked the Supreme Court to delay its February 25th ruling that would effectively shut down dozens of dispensaries across the state.
Until the courts rule on the latest filing, the status quo holds, but patients and cannabis providers are worried about what could happen next.
At issue is the Montana Marijuana Act of 2011. That law was a response by legislators to address concerns about abuse that arose after medical marijuana was made legal through a voter initiative in 2004. The court’s action sparked fear in patients who turn to marijuana for pain relief.
“What are people going to do? They’ll kill themselves.”
This is a woman who lives not far outside of Helena. She doesn’t want to use her name on the radio because she’s afraid of what her neighbors might think if they hear her talking about pot. She lives in pain caused by a congenital defect in her spine.
"My nerve in my neck muscles is getting to be a tight cord, it goes to my arms. I can cook oatmeal and a couple little things, but I can’t use my arms or look down right now.”
She goes about every other week to get medical marijuana from Montana Buds in Helena. She says it doesn’t get rid of the pain, but the drug helps her sink into it, embrace it.
“But it helps me get through the day. It does help and to not have that, it’s a very scary thought. And I’m so afraid for so many other people. It's not young kids who are going in there, it’s the older people that are going in there. This is the only relief they have. I don’t know how they’re going to go without it.”
“Where are they going to met someone and find someone that is willing to grow this product for them,” said Joe Fabrizio, who runs Montana Buds in Helena. It opened about a year and a half ago. He says most of his 200 patients are between 60 and 80 years old.
The Montana Marijuana Act will limit providers, like Montana Buds, to three clients, among other regulations. Fabrizio says he could no longer operate in Montana if that happens. The law also allows people to grow their own plants for medicinal use, so they wouldn’t need to buy it. But Fabrizio says that isn’t realistic for many of his patients.
“How are they expected, with stage four cancer, to grow their own medicine? This is a full time job, to do this. That is why we are here.”
Montana lawmakers' decision to pull marijuana away from commercial disputation and toward the small self- supply model is counter to the national trend of the industry, according to Vanderbilt law professor Robert Mikos.
“More and more states are moving towards a, what I would call commercial supply model. Where they don’t let patients or caregivers grow the drug themselves and instead require them to go to a third party to obtain it. Whereas Montana is in that original mold, which is you have to grow it yourself. Or otherwise find some else who will grow it on your behalf, but only for a small number of people.”
For states like Montana, who have this small self-supply model approach to medical marijuana, rules like those in the Montana Marijuana Act are pretty common. And there was a reason for that.
“Montana adopted the ballot initiative in 2004. The concern at that time, and really from when California did this in 1996, up until the early 2000s, was that if you tried to created a commercial model the federal government could come in and shut it down.”
So, keeping operations small would keep the feds from coming into the state busting big dispensaries. But in 2009 the Obama administration said it wouldn’t prioritize prosecuting a commercial medical marijuana industry as long as states had their own strict regulations.
“States stated to open up and shift the commercial supply model.”
Now that states didn’t have to worry about the feds coming in, Mikos says it made sense for some states to allow a few big providers of pot, instead of lots of little ones, because it would be easier to regulate them.
“It is interesting because there are only a few holdouts as of now that don’t allow, again, what I call this commercial distribution model. And it is Montana, it’s Michigan and it’s Hawaii.”
Mikos says Montana may increasingly feel pressure from other states to move in the direction of a commercial distribution policy for medical marijuana.
“If you are in a state that wants to have very tight control over medical marijuana or recreational marijuana and you are next to another state that puts little controls whatsoever, you may have a tough time enforcing your regulations.”
Moving out of state, or risking arrest for driving out of state and bringing drugs back isn’t out of the question for some patients in Montana. The woman at the beginning of this story says she has thought about moving. Although she really likes it in Montana, she’d still move, because she doesn’t want to live in pain. She doesn’t do much with her days besides sit on the couch in her small apartment. She has a TV remote, a book of crossword puzzles and a beat-up old Bible on the cushion next to her. She spends a lot of time praying.
“My quality of life is a 2 out of 100. I’m just waiting.”
There are over 13,000 registered medical marijuana users in Montana.
When the Supreme Court ruled in February, saying medical marijuana providers could only serve a maximum of three patients, Montana's Attorney General Tim Fox released a statement praising the decision. He says the law the court upheld better addresses the reality that marijuana is illegal under federal law.
The request to delay the Montana Marijuana Act regulations pending in state courts asks for the Supreme Court’s February decision to be paused until the next legislative session in 2017. It also asks the court to lift the three-patient limit.