Medical marijuana providers struggle with uncertain industry regulations

First seen in: Medical marijuana providers struggle with uncertain industry regulations

Four months after I-182, also known as the Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative, passed, Missoula’s medical marijuana dispensaries are still waiting on an uncertain future of regulations in Montana. Dispensaries came under incredibly strict regulations in September 2016, leaving them to remain open with few patients or close for four months and hope I-182 passed, allowing them to reopen.

In December, the initiative passed and many dispensaries re-opened. The shutdown was something Lionheart Caregiving, a dispensary with multiple locations in Montana, had experienced before, in 2011, when they closed because of federal arrests and shutdowns.

Jeff Stahl, general manager of the Lionheart Caregiving in Missoula, said that the shutdown in 2011 and federal arrests “scared the hell” out of providers, patients and possible patients.

If I-182 had not passed, many dispensaries, including Lionheart Caregiving, most likely would have closed permanently. Rent and the legal battle would have been too costly if the shop could not be open for business. Stahl said it was sad to turn away patients that relied on medical cannabis. He said he did not want to see patients struggle with chronic pain or addiction to opioids while they were closed.

Since re-opening, Lionheart Caregiving in Missoula has more patients than in September, though the whole company is still recovering from the four-month closure. Stahl said he has seen an increase in new patients who have not held “green cards” before, but feel like the industry is stabilizing and becoming safer with the proposed regulations of Senate Bill 333.

SB 333 was sent back to committee on April 19. It focused on bringing labs and testing to the Montana medical marijuana industry. Stahl said he sees this as a step forward for the industry in Montana even if it might force out smaller, less experienced providers.

“It may cost us extra, but in the long run it is for the well-being of our patients,” Stahl said.

He said he thinks it will make the industry stronger and more legitimate in the face of possible federal scrutiny. Growing is an incredibly complex process which Stahl said needs a high level of education. The proposed legislation would test providers’ cannabis for contaminants such as mold and pesticides.

Katrina Farnum, owner of Garden Mother Herbs, kept three patients during the closures. She said it is a “good riddance” to get rid of providers who fail tests for mold. Farnum said the legislation could create an avenue for labs unwilling to come to Montana because of a small economy. She wants to be able to test for turpine levels so she can match certain marijuana strains to specific conditions in her patients.

“I will pay for testing, even if it is not regulated, but I need labs to do it,” Farnum said.

It has been a roller coaster for JJ Thomas, owner of The Marijuana Company. Thomas said he is taking it one day at a time after having to cut the plants down, regrow them, cut them down, and then reopen again.

Thomas is afraid that regulations and testing requirements will cause his business overhead to be too high, forcing him to move out of state because there is no margin of profit for him in Montana. His family-run dispensary can only remain in Montana if Thomas can support a family with his business.

He wants clarity about the regulations so he can figure out if he is putting money and time into a business that will not survive. “We are not going anywhere as long as we can say we are compliant,” Thomas said.

Despite volatile legislation and closures, there are still 57 providers in Missoula county, one fewer than in 2016. Many dispensaries reopened under different names and in different locations. Glenn Broughton opened Starrbuds, one of the few new dispensaries in Missoula.

Broughton opened his first dispensary in 2010 for six months before he shut down due to the 2011 federal raids. He started a delivery service in 2008 when medical marijuana was first legalized in Montana. He leased his dispensary’s space in June 2016 and waited out the legislative battle, opening Starrbuds in January.

He said he sees many patients who are still hesitant to get green cards because they are put-off by the ups and downs of the past years. He said that with the Montana Cannabis Industry Association’s lobbying team in Helena, he feels strongly that a bill will pass that works for the regulation of the industry in Montana.

There were over 4,000 medical marijuana providers in 2011, before the first shutdown happened. That number dropped to under 400 over the next three months, according to the Montana Marijuana Program, which is part of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“People in it for the quick money didn’t have the stamina to weather it out,” Broughton said.

“This is our time,” he said. “It is now or never.”