Will Voters Re-Open Montana’s Closed Dispensaries?

Published on September 30, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020

“FLOWER HAS BEEN FORCED TO CLOSE,” reads the sign on the door of the medical cannabis provider’s brand-new storefront in downtown Missoula.

Flower just moved here in early August. The dispensary’s owner says the new storefront is costing three times the rent he paid at the old location. The new place is larger and handicapped accessible, and it sits on Higgins Avenue, a main thoroughfare. It should be a great location—if it’s allowed to reopen.

Like every other cannabis dispensary in Montana, Flower was forced to shut its doors four weeks ago.

The shuttering of the state’s dispensaries had been looming for months. Back in February the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the provisions of a law passed by the legislature in 2011—Senate Bill 423—were legal and binding. Those provisions limit providers of medical marijuana to only three card-holding patients each. They also incur a medical board of review for any doctor recommending cannabis to more than 25 patients per year–and the doctor must pay for all board of review expenses. 

More than 13,600 card-holding Montana patients have lost access to their medicine.

The ruling finally did what Senate Bill 423 was crafted to do: effectively shut down the state’s medical cannabis system.

Enactment of the ruling was delayed until August 31, at which point it shuttered every dispensary in Montana. Almost all of the state’s 13,600+ card-holding patients have lost access to their medicine.

In November, Montana voters will have the chance to revive the dispensaries and reboot the state’s medical cannabis program. Or they may allow it to die altogether. Initiative 182, measure crafted by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, would legalize and better regulate the same medical marijuana dispensaries that were just shut down.

How did we get here?

Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, listens to debate on the state's medical marijuana law, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 in Helena, Mont. The Republican-led House backed full repeal Thursday of the state's medical marijuana law, arguing it is time to undo the 2004 ballot initiative that spawned an industry few envisioned. (AP Photo/The Independent Record, Dylan Brown)

Jerry Bennett, R-Libby, listens to debate on the state’s medical marijuana law on Feb. 10, 2011, in Helena, Mont. The Republican-led House backed full repeal of the state’s medical marijuana law, arguing that it was time to undo the 2004 ballot initiative. (AP Photo/The Independent Record, Dylan Brown)

Back in 2004, 62% of Montana voters agreed to legalize medical cannabis. The legislature never got around to regulating the system, though, and by 2011 more than 30,000 card-holding patients were crowding into storefronts that some say were popping up on every corner. When then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer refused to repeal voter initiative at the request of the state legislature, lawmakers cobbled together Senate Bill 423 in an effort to regulate the system out of existence.

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That bill became law (minus its most punishing provisions, which were delayed by a court challenge) and the reduced number of patients to just over 13,500 statewide as of January, 2016. Those who now qualify for a cannabis card are required to prove a history of chronic pain, intractable nausea, or a short list of other symptoms or conditions.

Katie Wetch of Billings, Montana, told Leafly, ““Without cannabis, I don’t think I’d still be here.” Wetch lives with Arnold Chiari Malformation and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which causes her brain stem to herniate into her brain stem. She underwent her first brain surgery at 14, and she has been under the knife many times since then. Two metal rods inserted into her back lift her skull off of her brain stem, but the hardware combined with the symptoms of her conditions themselves left her in overwhelming pain. Pain that was initially treated with opiates.

“By the time I was sixteen,” she says, “I was addicted to opiates. They ran my life. All I could think about was when the next dose was coming, and when it wore off, I would go into detox.” She obtained her medical marijuana card a few years later and found that she was able to drastically reduce her opiate intake. She has now been dosing herself regularly with cannabis for over a decade.

A dispensary becomes a campaign center


Every Friday the now-closed Missoula dispensary Flower hosts an open house where patients and advocates discuss medical cannabis and Initiative 182. (Photo courtesy of Flower.)

Patients aren’t the only ones impacted by SB-423’s draconian provisions. Providers of medical cannabis, too, are suffering. The medical marijuana industry in Montana employs an estimated 2,000 people, many of whom have had to seriously tighten their belts of have been laid off with the industry shutdown. Local businesses with whom they work are also feeling the impact of SB-423.

The owner and the staff at Flower have decided to make the shutdown an opportunity to educate. They hold monthly photography exhibits and an open house at their new storefront every Friday, inviting passers-by in to talk about medical cannabis and Initiative 182. (Tonight’s open house runs from 4pm to 8pm.)

If passed, the initiative would reinstate the state’s medical marijuana program, re-open the dispensaries, and provide improvements in licensing, inspections, and product testing, as well as access for PTSD sufferers. The initiative, which promises a more accountable and responsible legal cannabis law, seems like a no-brainer in a state that voted overwhelmingly for medical marijuana program 12 years ago.

But support for I-182 is by no means universal. Steve Zabawa, the man behind the anti-drug advocacy group SAFE Montana and a three-times-failed ballot initiative aiming to prohibit all marijuana in Montana, is a vocal opponent of I-182. The automotive salesman from Billings travels the state, speaking out against the medical marijuana industry at civic forums, to local community groups, and on the radio. SAFE Montana funds advertising campaigns that include large billboards sporting giant pot leaves emblazoned with “NO POT SHOPS”—an interesting tactic, given that one of the provisions of SB-423 is that dispensaries are prohibited from advertising at all.

Nevertheless many in this traditionally red state are hopeful about I-182. The Yes on 182 campaign, spearheaded by the MTCIA, is seeking donations and volunteers to help spread the word in the runup to the November election. Cannabis patient, Marine veteran, PTSD sufferer, and I-182 proponent Tayln Lang hopes that Montanans will get involved to ensure that the initiative passes. “If SB-423 remains in effect,” he warned, “we’re going to be the only state in the Union to move backward on this issue.”

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Lynsey G
Lynsey G
Lynsey is a Montana-based journalist, poet, artist, model, and critic. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Nerve.com, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency.
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