In Big Sky Country, where cannabis caravans once freely roamed signing up hundreds of medical marijuana patients a day, the future of the crumbling industry is on the ballot.
Voters in Montana will decide Nov. 8 on Initiative 182, which would undo the devastating blow dealt to the 12-year-old medical marijuana system this summer, when the state supreme court allowed restrictions passed by lawmakers back in 2011 to finally go forward.
The new rules, which went into effect Aug. 31 and were designed specifically to strangle the law, limit providers to three patients each, causing dispensaries to close and leaving most of the 13,000 patients on the medical registry in limbo without a provider or legal access to marijuana.
Initiative 182 is designed to pry the legislature’s hands off the law’s neck.
“What voters are getting the opportunity to do is to essentially get back to the program that has been operating for many years and make improvements,” said Chris Lindsey, a one-time medical marijuana caregiver in Montana who is now senior legislative counsel for the Marijuana Policy Project.
If the measure fails, Montana will be one of the only states in the nation to significantly roll back its marijuana laws.
“So much has changed in other parts of the country—it doesn’t seem like it is of this era,” Lindsey said of the new rules, which went into effect even as several nearby states legalized recreational marijuana in recent years.
The history of medical marijuana in Montana is one of boom and bust, complicated by vague legislation, overzealous purveyors, DEA raids and public backlash.
The state, which contains barely a million people in an area nearly the size of California, was among the earliest adopters of medical marijuana, passing an initiative in 2004 with 62 percent of the vote. Only a few hundred people signed up at first. Then in 2009, marijuana advocates started the so-called caravans—travelling marijuana clinics—in the state and, after President Barack Obama’s administration indicated it would not go after marijuana businesses operating in compliance with state laws, storefronts began popping up throughout Montana, testing the limits of the 2004 initiative.
The number of patients soared from about 500 in 2007 to 5,000 in 2009 to more than 30,000 at its peak in 2011, according to a timeline supplied by Lindsey.
That year, as lawmakers moved to repeal the voter-approved law, the DEA raided two-dozen caregiver businesses in Montana—including one ran by Lindsey.
“Everyone just dried up and blew away, and it got real quiet,” he said of the state’s marijuana industry.
The number of patients plummeted, too.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the Legislature’s repeal measure, but another bill, SB 423, that medical marijuana supporters describe as “repeal in disguise,” passed and went into effect without Schweitzer’s signature. Most of the restrictions in the new law were put on hold after the Montana Cannabis Industry Association challenged in court, but an effort to stop SB 423 for good at the polls failed.
Billings car dealer Steve Zabawa, director of the Safe Montana group opposing I-182, said it became clear to him as the marijuana industry grew in Montana that the 2004 initiative was intended to have as few rules as possible to essentially legalize marijuana in the state.
While he says I-182 has some good aspects, such as licensing and inspections of providers, he says it doesn’t go far enough in regulating the industry.
“We’re for safe, happy, healthy neighborhoods and families, and 182 will be pot shops on every corner,” he said.
Zabawa’s group originally backed a ballot initiative to overturn the 2004 medical marijuana law entirely. Zabawa poured more than $92,000 of his own money into that campaign, according to the Associated Press. But that measure, along with one to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, fell short of the signatures needed to make the 2016 ballot.
Zabawa said he believes in medical marijuana—but only pharmaceutical derivatives approved by the FDA—and “natural highs,” which he says one can get from scoring an “A” on a test, succeeding in an athletic competition or climbing a mountain.
He bristles at the notion that Montana is moving backwards. He predicts that I-182 will fail and family organizations and “mad mothers” will follow the state’s lead across the country and roll back progressive marijuana laws.
“I think you guys have had a good run on ‘high times,’ and I think a new direction is coming up out of Montana going to other states,” Zabawa said. “You are going to see families bonding together to protect their families.”
If voters do pass the measure, the fight in Montana isn’t over. There is nothing to stop the Legislature or another initiative campaign from rolling back the law again.
“This is a long-term battle. This is a war,” Zabawa said. “Each year, there is another battle going on. It will continue. We will continue to play ball and continue to fight.”
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