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

(Darren Gygi)


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.

March 22, 2010    |     Volume LXII, No. 5

  • The political difference between Reagan and Obama is that the former gave the public what it wanted.
  • For employers who want to test job applicants, it’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
  • In Montana, medical-marijuana regulation threatens to shut down the most legitimate tier of operators.
  • A Cuban prisoner of conscience and an extreme method.
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