Restoring Medical Marijuana in Montana
Voters in Big Sky Country have the opportunity to restore the medical marijuana law they voted for in 2004. But one rich man in Montana would prefer to repeal medical marijuana altogether.
When Montana passed its law, like other early western medical marijuana states, the initiative was silent on the issue of retail access. Montana’s law did provide for caregivers that could cultivate and distribute marijuana to patients; from that arose a system of collective grows and retail store fronts serving the patient population.
But Montana’s law enforcement did not appreciate the popularity of buildings where marijuana was being sold. Additionally, Montana’s vast rural spaces made getting patients to the doctors who would recommend medical marijuana was extremely difficult. This led to enterprising providers who began taking doctors to the patients, where hundreds would gather at a rented meeting space to get their recommendations. Soon, the road trips were eliminated when another provider began offering recommendations via video examinations conducted on Skype.
The combination of unforeseen dispensaries and medical marijuana doctor caravans and video visits was too much for the Montana Legislature. In 2011, they passed a bill to completely repeal the 2004 citizen medical marijuana initiative. Only the veto pen of then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer saved the program.
Rebuffed, the legislature came back with Senate Bill 423, which the governor signed. That law seriously scaled back the Montana program, including limiting caregivers to serving just three patients, which destroyed the viability of the storefront dispensaries, as intended. The law also requires in-person exams and subjected doctors to medical board scrutiny if they recommended medical marijuana for more than 25 patients in a year, effectively ending the Skype recommendations and medical marijuana caravans.
Voters had the chance to fix this in 2012 when medical marijuana activists got Initiated Referendum 124 on the ballot. This was a veto referendum that could have overturned the SB 423. However, it was one of those confusing electoral situations where one had to vote “no” in order to express “yes, I want to overturn the bad law”. The IR-124 passed with 57 percent of the vote, maintaining the SB 423 restrictions.
Now the activist community has gotten Initiative 182 on the ballot for November. This initiative would fix the problems created by SB 423 by allowing providers to cultivate and dispense medical marijuana in storefronts. It would also remove the oversight on doctors’ recommendation numbers and the ability of law enforcement to conduct unannounced inspections.
The Montana Cannabis Industries Association has ponied up most of the over $50,000 contributed to the I-182 campaign. But they are being out-raised by the opposition to the measure, particularly by the over $100,000 contributed by a Billings car dealer named Stephen Zabawa.
Zabawa tried this season to counter the I-182 campaign with his own Initiative 176 under the group Safe Montana. His initiative would not just repeal the medical marijuana law; it would match Montana’s drug laws to federal drug laws. As of press time, the initiative had fallen about 4,000 votes short of making the ballot, but Zabawa and Safe Montana have taken their case to court to restore some 8,000 signatures that had been disqualified.
When SB 423 passed, Montana had over 30,000 medical marijuana patients and over 4,400 providers. By July 2016, the rolls had shrunk down to just over 13,000 patients with only 487 providers who, as of August 31, could only supply medicine to three patients each. If I-182 does not pass, there will only be around 1,500 patients who can be lawfully supplied medical marijuana.