Magazine | March 22, 2010, Issue

Zoned Out

In Montana, medical-marijuana regulation threatens to shut down the most legitimate tier of operators

Great Falls, Mont. – They could barely have looked worse. An out-of-towner from Missoula, the “progressive” enclave of Montana, sang the praises of his large-scale marijuana grow operation. A “patient” swayed side to side as she discussed her long acquaintance with heroin and meth — that is, before she mellowed out with the help of pot. In the back, some pale and hollow-looking youths lurked, and the mayor, catching their eyes, insisted that they remove their hats. They stared sullenly back at him for a while, mumbled, and complied. A dwarf who makes a living as a cannabis cultivator rose to deride the commission meeting. “This is a circus!” he bellowed. This rabble needed a lobbyist.

The potheads had shown up in droves at hearings of the Great Falls City Commission, which this month imposed a moratorium on “caregivers” — as legal dealers are known in the patois of Montana’s medical-marijuana law. The moratorium notionally prevents anyone from making a profit off the legal-marijuana trade. The city says the ban is intended to be temporary, awaiting the formulation of permanent zoning regulations.

“Medical marijuana” has been legal in Montana since 2004. As in Colorado, California, and Oregon, the vehicle was a voter initiative — marijuana activists gathered signatures to qualify it for the ballot and then made a campaign pitch that had something to do with dying grandmas and cancer. In Montana, the Medical Marijuana Act passed with 62 percent of the vote, outpacing even George W. Bush, who took the Treasure State’s electoral votes with 59 percent.

The law provides for virtually no regulation. A single state employee is tasked with the administration and enforcement of the program, even though a robust industry has grown around the law, with doctors to prescribe and legal pot dealers to provide. Traveling clinics fan out from Missoula to other Montana towns, doctors and “caregivers” in tow. At a local hotel on a crisp fall day last year, my friends and I were about to get a drink. Walking in, we passed a sign with a marijuana leaf and, our interest piqued, went into a conference room where jars of marijuana buds sat on a table. One expects this type of thing in Oakland, but here in Montana? It still takes a moment to get beyond the unreality of it all.

Jason Christ, owner of the Montana Caregivers Network, stood in the hotel lobby, shod in Birkenstocks. More than anyone, he is the face of medical marijuana in Montana — photographed by the local newspaper puffing away on a joint on the steps of the Civic Center, or testifying to anyone with ears to hear (public bodies and journalists mostly) about his case of celiac disease and the resulting hemorrhoids which, he says, drove him to marijuana use.

#page#He gave our group of four the once-over and perhaps we twentysomethings looked unduly sickly, because he urged all of us to sign up. My friend, who suffers from knee pain and an allergy to government regulation, paid the $150 “consulting fee” on a lark. Not more than ten minutes later, and with no examination of his medical file, a physician had signed his medical-marijuana form. This year, the Caregivers Network began to offer doctor evaluations via webcam, and it contracts with a team of six lawyers to head off trouble. When my friend received his “green card” from the State of Montana, its text was slanted due to printer error. But no matter. Here was a ticket to ride.

For those potheads clever enough to go through this mild process of state-sanctioned fibbing, the medical-marijuana law has meant the de facto legalization of the drug. Paul Gorsuch, a neurosurgeon at Benefis Hospital in Great Falls, says he has seen many of his patients obtain green cards. About 25 percent of medical-marijuana patients are between 21 and 30, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. Dr. Gorsuch says that “the age breakdown fits a recreational-use model,” not one aligned to the incidence of the diseases and chronic pain marijuana is used to manage. He suspects that some in his profession are abetting fraud.

After four years of quiet use and abuse through this rubric, last year ushered in a bonanza of legal marijuana use. Of the state’s more than 8,000 registered patients, 2,800 were issued green cards in the last two months of 2009. By the end of the year, the number of cardholders had increased six-fold.

The word is out about “medical” marijuana, passed along the street and, increasingly, by mass media. Suggestive ads for caregivers appear every week in newspapers across the state. The subdued caregiver table at the one-day clinic, with its prescheduled medical interviews, has been supplanted by an almost carnivalesque atmosphere, twinkling with canning jars full of marijuana and fanciful smoking implements, where a wink and a nod suffice to inveigle a doctor’s approval. These events, which once drew dozens, today attract hundreds.

Here in the state’s third-largest city, 24-year-old Brandon Peressini saw in medical marijuana an industry full of opportunity. Last June, he took out space in a former Catholic hospital, now an office building. Since, he has gardened marijuana in two basement rooms, selling to nearly 150 patients. He says he knows all their names and conditions. On an upper floor of the building, Peressini keeps a demure, sparsely furnished counseling office — “as personable a place,” he says, “as any dentist office or community clinic.” It is hard to disagree. During the course of my recent visit to the facility in the company of a city commissioner — Peressini welcomes all comers — a neighboring tenant cheerfully popped in to say hello.

“In the six months we’ve been in operation, we never heard one word of complaint from other tenants,” Peressini says. His landlord, moreover, has no problem with the operation and even agreed to finance a $150,000 renovation of the stately but mouldering building’s seventh floor to accommodate an expansion of Peressini’s business, Medical Marijuana of Montana LLC. Peressini says he’ll require about 3,000 square feet, and he has even recruited an architect whose credits include Montana State’s plant-research facility to conduct the redesign of this old nunnery, which has been vacant for two decades.

#page#Trouble began for Peressini when he sent in his application for a fire-safety inspection certificate, an act many businesses in his building did not even bother complying with. Nonetheless, it is the law, and Peressini attempted to follow it. The municipal ordinance book said nothing about marijuana zoning — and in zoning theory, when the law says nothing, all is allowed. But a month after Peressini applied, the city returned his application and filing fee. Attached was a sticky note from a community-planning director, informing him to shut down his operation.

The next Peressini heard of it, the city attorney was bemoaning the dangers of mold and carbon dioxide gassing supposedly associated with cannabis cultivation and speculating on the threat of blight that dispensaries pose to the community. Medical marijuana may have been passed as a state law by the voters, but throughout the West cities are adopting strict zoning laws that shut down the legal-marijuana business.

“Bulls**t,” says Mary Jolley, the city commissioner who visited Peressini’s with me, when I ask her about the “blight” argument during a winter meeting of the Montana Republican party. She contends that the problems concerning marijuana are being blown out of proportion merely to give the city a pretext to regulate. “I oppose creating special categories for persons who are using a legal product, legally purchased and sold and grown,” says Jolley, who leans libertarian and was on the losing end of the 4–1 vote to retroactively ban all medical-marijuana businesses, including those that had already applied for city permits.

Peressini, the young owner of Medical Marijuana of Montana, has put his renovation plans on hold for the moment, but he still talks dreamily of buying a device that measures THC content in marijuana so that it can be further formalized, quantified, as a legitimate drug. Other large marijuana businesses in the state meticulously inventory and invoice their product. Caregivers frequently call for their produce to be taxed. For now, Peressini merrily operates in defiance of the city ban, and as he waits for zoning regulations to be finalized, he says he is contemplating taking his outfit across the county line or simply to an undisclosed location.

In many western states today, a considerable number of people have a legal right to grow, sell, possess, and consume marijuana. Whether they are frauds or not, revoking their smoking rights is not within a local government’s purview, and state legislatures have been reluctant to rescind what the voters have passed through the initiative process. One way or another, these legal users will conduct their trade. Either the legal-marijuana business will be carried out in the light of day, in a storefront business or other commercial property; or, if such properties are zoned out, users will revert to the template of the furtive drug deal. Here in Montana, regulation has tended to clamp a vise around the most legitimate tier of operators.

– Mr. Kavulla is a former associate editor of National Review. He lives in Montana. 

Travis Kavulla — Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor of National Review, is a writer in Montana and the Republican nominee for public service commissioner for the state. He currently edits National Review ...

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