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.