Pubdate: Mon, 02 Jan 2012
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2012 Missoulian
Author: Gwen Florio


One of the fastest-growing segments of Missoula's business community 
did an abrupt about-face in 2011.

The city now has significantly fewer medical marijuana businesses 
than it did at the beginning of the year, 38 compared to 63, 
according to the city of Missoula's Business Licensing Office.

State Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who successfully sponsored a law 
to restrict such businesses, said he'd love to take credit for the 
change in landscape.

But, he said, "I think it's largely due to federal law enforcement."

In March and November, federal agents raided medical marijuana 
businesses around the state, including in Missoula and the Flathead. 
Despite Montana's voter-approved legalization of the medical use of 
cannabis, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Some of those 
targeted by the raids already have pleaded guilty to federal drug 
charges whose penalties carry stiff prison sentences and hefty fines.

"I think the threat of significant jail time brought a sense of 
reality to a lot of people who were engaged in the operation," Essmann said.

One person's reality is another's fear.

The highly publicized raids had a chilling effect on medical 
marijuana businesses and their clients, said John Masterson, who 
heads Montana's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform 
of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

"We've got entrepreneurs who were, by all accounts I'm aware of, 
complying with state law. They just were successful business people 
who were raided by, basically, federal law enforcement soldiers in 
body armor with gas masks and submachine guns," he said. "Many or 
maybe all who were raided were acting in good faith and believed they 
were in compliance with state law."

That fear also applies not only to entrepreneurs but to consumers as 
well, he said. The number of people with state-approved medical 
marijuana cards dropped from a high of 30,036 in June to 10,236 last 
month - just about where it was 18 months ago.

The number of providers plummeted even more sharply, from a high of 
4,848 in March to 383 last month.

That's a lightning-fast turnaround from the days when it seemed as 
though another medical marijuana business opened weekly in Missoula, 
and the number of cardholders rose by more than 1,000 people each month.

"I've talked to a lot of voters in my district who were OK with 
looking the other way if it helped an elderly person with a severe 
terminal situation," Essmann said. "But they were not happy with the 
situation as it had developed."

Even the most ardent supporters of medical cannabis had problems with 
some of that growth.

"At this time last year, just prior to the Legislature convening, 
there were many of us in the movement who were concerned with some of 
the brash and insensitive and arguably inappropriate commercial 
activities by some operators," Masterson said. "Our Montana culture 
was not ready to so suddenly have billboards and signage, and that 
provoked a response."

He didn't mention anyone by name but one Missoula resident, Jason 
Christ, became infamous for Internet "tele-clinics" and traveling 
"cannabis caravans" where physicians provided medical marijuana 
recommendations for hundreds of people in a few hours.

Although Christ's business continued staging one-day clinics around 
the state, he closed his prominent location at Orange and Front 
streets months ago and, more recently, some of his websites have 
vanished from the Internet. These days, Christ is embroiled in a 
series of lawsuits and countersuits - mostly with former business 
associates - and is scheduled to go to trial in April in a felony 
intimidation case.

Among the suits filed by Christ, acting as his own attorney, is one 
challenging the new law as unconstitutional.

Months ago, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association - which formed 
in response to the new law - filed its own legal challenge, resulting 
in an injunction on some of its most stringent provisions.

The state has appealed part of that ruling and the Cannabis Industry 
Association said it will counter that appeal.

Opponents of the new law also have collected enough signatures to 
place a repeal of Essmann's measure on the 2012 ballot.

"I'm optimistic that the attempt to repeal what the Legislature did 
will fail," said Essmann, citing a Montana State University-Billings 
poll released in October that showed 62 percent of those queried 
supported his measure's restrictions.

"I don't think most Montanans want to return to the Wild West 
situation," he said. "I know that the people in my home community are 
happy that the storefronts are no longer present and the billboards 
are not actively promoting the product and sending messages to the 
youth of the community."

These days, Essmann is busier with his campaign for the GOP's 
gubernatorial nomination than medical marijuana questions. Despite 
the issue's high profile - medical marijuana was named the No. 1 news 
story of 2011 by the Associated Press' annual member poll - Essmann 
said it rarely arises on the campaign trail.

"Issue No. 1 will be the economy and jobs," he said. "Issue No. 2 
will be the economy and jobs. Issue No. 3 will be the economy and jobs."

For Masterson, of course, it remains Issue No. 1.

"As I look forward, it's clear we need to find some sort of middle 
ground," he said. "The voters of Montana generally believe that no 
one should face criminal penalties for responsible adult use of 
cannabis, whether to alleviate symptoms of some malady or relax after 
a hard day's work."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom