Montana Towns Fight to Rein In Industry Amid Store Boom, Spate of Violence
Casey Riffe/Billings Gazette
Good Stuff owner Bill Milligan puts his new city license for a medical-marijuana business back on the wall at his store in December 2009.
Cities across this state are rushing to contain a pot-store boom and an uptick in related violence that underscore the struggles of local governments nationwide to manage the growing medical-marijuana industry.
This month, the Billings City Council approved a temporary moratorium on the opening of new marijuana storefronts, shortly after firebombs were tossed at two such businesses and "Not in Our Town" was spray painted on both buildings.
Kalispell recently banned any new medical-marijuana stores in the city following the bludgeoning death of a patient that authorities believe was related to the theft of medical-marijuana plants. Next month, the Great Falls City Commission will consider whether to extend an existing moratorium on medical-marijuana businesses or ban them altogether after the town saw the patient count mushroom "completely out of hand," according to Great Falls Mayor Michael Winters.
"It's an absolute nightmare," Billings Mayor Tom Hanel said from his downtown office. "My prediction is it's only going to get worse if we continue to allow it." Still, medical-marijuana advocates are urging restraint, concerned about the impact of changes on the sick and pain-stricken.
Authorities earlier this month investigate the firebombing of Montana Theraputics, a medical-marijuana business in Billings.
Fourteen states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws intended to give certain ill people legal access to medical marijuana. But, in many instances, municipalities are left to figure out how to implement state laws that are often vague when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the medical-pot business. Those laws have led to confusion in communities and pushed states including Colorado and Maine to clarify what is legal for the industry.
And Los Angeles, which didn't cap the number of dispensaries in the city for more than a decade after the state legalized medical marijuana, has just launched a get-tough policy designed to control hundreds of medical-marijuana dispensaries.
In 2004, Montanans voted overwhelmingly in favor of a law allowing "patients" and "caregivers" to legally possess some marijuana plants and usable marijuana. Patients must first obtain a state-issued medical-marijuana card after a physician certifies that they have a "debilitating medical condition," such as cancer or severe nausea. Patients can either grow marijuana plants themselves or select a caregiver to provide it.
Several states are considering easing marijuana laws to decriminalize possession as well as profit from its sale. WSJ's Ashby Jones details what's behind the movement in a February interview with Kelsey Hubbard on the News Hub
Like some other states, Montana saw the industry expand rapidly after the U.S. Justice Department in October told federal prosecutors nationwide to refrain from going after medical-marijuana users and distributors who were in compliance with state law. Since September, the number of people registered as medical-marijuana patients in the state has more than tripled to nearly 14,000, according to Montana's Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Some Montanans argue the law is resulting in too-easy access to the plant for those who want to smoke it recreationally under the guise of being ill. Under particular scrutiny are traveling medical-marijuana clinics where caregivers set up in hotels and display products while prospective patients wait in line to receive a recommendation from a physician, usually for a fee.
"Before the doors even open, the parking lot has 300 kids throwing Frisbees and playing Hacky-Sack," said Mark Long, narcotics chief for the Montana Department of Justice.
Montana state legislators recently convened a committee to study ways to more effectively regulate the medical-marijuana business. The legislature plans to take up the issue in January.
"The stakes are high for a lot of these patients," said Tom Daubert, a lobbyist who orchestrated the 2004 ballot initiative that created the medical-marijuana business in Montana. Mr. Daubert also helps operate one of the state's biggest marijuana grow operations at Montana Cannabis outside Helena.
Montana law is unclear on several issues, such as whether a person can be arrested for possessing marijuana if they have applied for—but haven't received—a medical marijuana card. "Nobody knows what's legal and what isn't in a lot of situations," said Mr. Long.
In Billings, population 104,000, the number of medical-marijuana businesses has risen to about 80 from a handful in October, city officials said. The city said Thursday that it would close 25 stores it says aren't registered properly with the state.
"This is a legitimate business," said Kathy Adler, manager of Billings-based New Frontier Patient Care, which isn't among those being closed. "It should be treated no differently than any other business."
Last week, Mr. Daubert sat in a Montana Cannabis office in Billings near a hardy marijuana plant and a desk scattered with marijuana leaflets and marijuana-laced crisped-rice treats.
Kati Wetch, a 20-year old medical-marijuana patient with a painful genetic disorder that affects her brain stem, came in to pick up her regular supply. "I feel like a whole new person," she said. "My neurosurgeon told me to keep smoking."
Mr. Daubert said his main concern is keeping the drug accessible to patients like Ms. Wetch. He said he is working with law enforcement and lawmakers to help craft better rules. "I'm not surprised that there's some backlash," he said. But "it would be a serious mistake to drive all of this underground."