Cannabis dispensaries gear up for law changes in Montana

BILLINGS — With Montana’s new, stricter medical marijuana law going into effect in less than two months, many people who grow and sell cannabis are making plans to liquidate their businesses.

Hiedi Handford of Lincoln, publisher of Montana Connect, a statewide magazine for medical marijuana patients and caregivers, said she figures about half the caregivers are already planning to bail out, while the others intend to stay in business in case the new law is overturned.

“They’re staying and fighting,” she said, and though she’s not a grower herself, she plans to join them. “I grew up here. I’m not going to run away.”

Proponents of medical cannabis are still hoping that Gov. Brian Schweitzer will veto Senate Bill 423, though Schweitzer has said he intends to let it become law

without his signature.

SB423 is intended to clamp down on the industry, making it much harder for people claiming “severe chronic pain” to get medical marijuana cards. It will also require large marijuana-growing operations and storefront dispensaries to shut down by July 1.

The bill will create a new system in which people authorized to use medical marijuana can either grow their own or obtain it without compensation from a provider who can grow it for up to three people.

Mark Higgins, the owner of Montannabis, a business that grows marijuana for 200 to 300 medical cannabis patients, said he plans to be out of business before July 1.

He’s considering having an auction or selling his $65,000 worth of equipment on eBay. He also plans to sell all his remaining marijuana, since the new law will require him to turn over whatever is left to law enforcement authorities before July 1.

“There ain’t gonna be any left, I guaran-god-danged-tee you that,” he said.

Higgins, who served on a committee created by the City Council to propose local regulations for the medical cannabis industry, said he will vacate his 4,500-square foot building, for which he pays monthly rent of $1,600. His monthly payroll, for four employees including himself, is $10,000. He also has a monthly power bill of $1,500 to $2,000.

Higgins isn’t sure what he’ll do next, but he said he is considering working as a consultant in another state where medical marijuana laws are more liberal. One thing he won’t get involved in again is growing marijuana.

Producing the cannabis puts a “target on my back … 3 miles wide,” he said.

The fact that medical marijuana proponents are preparing to fight SB423 in court or at the ballot box doesn’t affect his plans. Even if the law were overturned, Higgins said, he would be getting out of the business.

Although his business wasn’t targeted when federal and state agents executed 26 warrants on marijuana businesses across the state in March, Higgins was rattled by the raids.

“I’m already a criminal in the eyes of the federal government, and it bothers me, to say the least,” he said.

Handford said other caregivers have said the same thing — that the federal action is more frightening than the changes to state law.

“The feds are definitely waving the fear stick,” she said. “That’s their job. … They want to drive it underground.”

One of the patients served by Higgins is Terry Truley, 58, who was in Montannabis on Wednesday to buy some marijuana to deal with the pain of what she said was her stage 4 lymphatic breast cancer, which has metastasized into her bones.

She said she did a lot of research before deciding to use Higgins’ services last year, saying his was “probably the most respectable storefront I encountered.”

She said she might trying growing her own marijuana after Higgins closes his shop, “but it’s not as easy as growing tomatoes out in your garden.”

She doesn’t like the alternative, which would be going back to “heavy-duty narcotics.” She said she doesn’t handle narcotics well and probably wouldn’t be able to drive again if she started using them, stranding her at home. She used to lose eight to 10 pounds some months because narcotics suppressed her appetite, she said, but Higgins has given her strains of cannabis that got her eating regularly again.

She can’t imagine finding someone willing to provide her with free cannabis, as provided by the new law, and she’s sorry to see Higgins go.

“I think it’s really a shame,” she said.

Police Chief Rich St. John, meanwhile, said he’s still not sure what direction enforcement of the new law will take. He said he will have to consult with the city and county attorneys to determine what kind of violations would be involved, say, if a storefront medical cannabis provider were still open on July 1.

The owner conceivably could be charged with misdemeanor or felony distribution or possession of marijuana, or it could be addressed as a simple code violation, he said.

Once those questions are answered, St. John said, the department will need to come up with a plan to enforce the law, probably by communicating with the various licensed providers to make sure they are in compliance with the new law.

 

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