By Phillip Smith
In the wake of the passage of a medical marijuana "reform" bill that would criminalize dispensaries and large, multi-patient grows, some dispensary operators and growers are already closing up shop. But others are organizing to undo the legislature's attempt to destroy the industry.
The newly formed Montana Cannabis Industry Association(MCIA) has announced that it is moving forward on two fronts: It has hired an attorney to seek a temporary injunction blocking the law from going into effect and it has begun a signature-gathering campaign to put the issue directly to the voters on the November 2012 ballot.
"We are moving forward on the injunction and the referendum," MCIA board member Kate Cholewa told the Chronicle. "The injunction challenges the law. That's one prong. The other prong is the signature-gathering campaign. If we are successful in gathering those signatures, that would keep the law from going into effect and we would be on the ballot in 2012."
Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) vetoed an outright repeal bill passed by the Republican legislature, but he has said that while he finds the second bill unpalatable, he will allow it to become law without his signature. Activists hold little hope that Schweitzer can be persuaded to change his mind before his 10-day period to act ends on Friday.
"That is not something we expect to happen," said Cholewa. "You can't say the door is closed until Friday, but the political environment around here is such that it's unlikely."
Montana voters approved medical marijuana in a 2004 referendum, and the issue was relatively non-controversial until the Obama Justice Department released its October 2009 memo saying that going after people in compliance with state law in states where it is legal was not a high priority. After that, the Montana medical marijuana scene exploded, with the number of patients shooting from 2,000 to 30,000 and the now familiar medical marijuana landscape of dispensaries, grow ups, and supply shops expanding rapidly.
Excesses by some operators in the post-memo period led to a virulent backlash, which was reflected in the legislative session this year. A bill to reasonably regulate medical marijuana that had been crafted over a period of months was amended beyond recognition by foes, who instead then passed the repeal bill. When Schweitzer vetoed that, the Republican leadership responded with the current bill, which also bans any medical marijuana sales, makes it more difficult for people claiming chronic pain to get a recommendation, and mandates investigations -- at their own expense! -- of any doctors who recommend it to more than 25 patients in a year.
This year's legislative session revealed a medical marijuana community that was divided and disorganized. The MCIA is an effort to get growers, dispensary operators, and advocates on the same page for the coming battle.
"The day after the session ended, we all got together in a meeting the next day to figure out what we could do," said Cholewa. "We talked about injunctions and referenda and interview lawyers. We raised $20,000 or $30,000 in 48 hours."
The number has since jumped to more than $50,000, and the MCIA has hired prominent Bozeman attorney James Goetz to challenge the law in court.
"The reality is that this group of legislators came in and instead of regulating the industry, they decided to destroy it with this de facto repeal, said Cholewa. "They were saying that medical marijuana in Montana was a mess, but they've created a mess of a whole different order. It’s about more than marijuana now," Cholewa said. "It's about democracy, the Constitution, health care and the fulfillment of compassionate voter intent. This is big."
It's also about money and the economy. Medical marijuana is a multi-million dollar industry in largely rural Big Sky Country. The state's economy could suffer if the new law takes hold, advocates said. The state Labor Department has estimated that dispensaries and growers have created between 1,000 and 2,000 jobs, a not insignificant number in a state whose population is under a million.
"Medical marijuana has created opportunities here, where there are people having a hard time finding work. If you talk to people in the industry here, they are people who were carpenters or contractors before the bottom fell out; now, they're cannabis entrepreneurs," she said.
It's not just direct employment, either Cholewa pointed out. "The impact spreads through the economy. Commercial spaces got rented, paid ad space got sold, the supply stores and ancillary businesses benefited as well."
But that's already starting to change, Cholewa said. "People have just shut down, they're getting out now," she said. "Growers are hurrying to get their last crops before July 1. The reality of wiping out the supply is looming. There is a lot of legitimate demand, but I don't know where the supply will be coming from."
Prohibition has an all-too familiar solution to the supply problem. It's called the black market. That's what the good people of Montana can look forward to if the new law isn’t stopped in the courts or at the ballot box. The MCIA is doing everything it can to ensure that it is.