Pubdate: Mon, 17 Aug 2015
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2015 Missoulian
Author: Kathryn Haake


Medical marijuana providers are cautiously opening new dispensaries 
in Missoula and across the state, but the state law allowing such 
shops remains in question.

"A lot of the industry is still in limbo," said Chris Fanuzzi, a 
medical marijuana provider who opened a new dispensary, Lionheart 
Caregiving, in Missoula last month. "The only reason that we can come 
back is that there is still a demand."

The number of patients and providers, in fact, continues to increase 
despite the ongoing court battle over Senate Bill 432, 2011 
legislation that restricted Montana's medical marijuana industry.

In January, Lewis and Clark County District Judge James Reynolds 
deemed parts of the law unconstitutional. Montana Attorney General 
Tim Fox responded with an appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

Fox argued that Reynolds erred in permanently enjoining the law's 
prohibition on commercial sales of medical marijuana.

In addition, the appeal contends Reynolds was wrong to block 
enforcement of the law's provision directing the Board of Medical 
Examiners to review the practice of any Montana physician who 
recommended medical marijuana for 25 or more patients in a 12-month period.

Finally, the appeal said Reynolds erroneously blocked the law's ban 
on advertising the commercial sale of medical marijuana in Montana.

"The law as passed has never gone into effect because the courts have 
stepped in and made changes," said marijuana activist Chris Lindsey 
of Missoula. "So now you have a law that says you can't charge and a 
judge that says you can."

"It's a huge mess," he said. "The only reason that businesses are 
opening is because people aren't getting in trouble and the feds have 
said we have other things to worry about."

According to quarterly data from the state Department of Health and 
Human Services, registered medical marijuana patients have increased 
from 8,681 in June 2012 to 12,017 patients this June.

However, that's markedly lower than the 30,000 registered patients in 2011.

Meanwhile, medical marijuana providers have increased from 390 in 
June 2012 to 442 this June. That's a fraction of the 4,438 
dispensaries that were open in 2011, but it does show that providers 
and patients are becoming bolder in the wake of Reynolds' ruling.

Elizabeth Pincolini, who runs the medical marijuana clinic Billings 
Alternative Wellness and hosts traveling clinics statewide, said many 
new dispensary owners are ignorant of the law and the complexities of 
the court battle.

"It's a risky time to open up a dispensary," Pincolini said Thursday. 
"We are the only state going backward."

To date, 22 states have legalized medical marijuana, while another 
four states and the District of Columbia have legalized its recreational use.


While the nation trends toward acceptance of marijuana, both 
medicinal and recreational, the drug continues to be a source of 
controversy in Montana.

Medical marijuana has been the subject of debate, and seen 
fluctuating waves of public opinion, statewide since its legalization in 2004.

Massive traveling marijuana clinics, dubbed "cannabis caravans," 
roved the state from 2009 to 2011, setting up camp in conference 
rooms at large hotels.

It was at these so-called clinics that hundreds of people received a 
recommendation for the drug after a very brief consultation with a 
doctor. Sometimes the doctor was from out of state, traveling with 
the caravan; other times, the doctor would see patients via Skype.

Many of the caravans were organized by an outlandish marijuana 
activist, Jason Christ, who made headlines by smoking marijuana 
outside the state Capitol and filing numerous lawsuits in Missoula 
County District Court and U.S. District Court, including one 
attempting to sue the city police, Missoula County Attorney's Office 
and 9-1-1 for $50 million.

Christ is no longer in Montana, and is no longer associated with this 
state's medical marijuana industry.

Pincolini said Christ's caravans weren't a bad idea, just poorly executed.

And of course, of the 30,000 people in line to get their "green 
card," many were receiving recommendations for medical marijuana for 
illegitimate reasons, she said.

"Back then ... people would be outside (the hotel) smoking weed 
everywhere," Pincolini said. "It just didn't leave a good taste in 
people's mouths."

In 2011, the Legislature responded to the perceived abuses by passing 
Senate Bill 423.

A federal crackdown on dispensaries followed the bill's introduction. 
According to federal law, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 
1 drug, like heroin.

Raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and the prosecution of 
high-profile medical marijuana entrepreneurs, including Lindsey, who 
lobbied for better regulation of the industry in 2009, and former 
Montana Grizzlies quarterback Jason Washington, all but shut down the 
industry in Missoula.

"(The raids were) devastating to our business," Fanuzzi said. "After 
the raids happened, we lost our staff. We had four dispensaries. We 
closed three of them down. It was just a matter of economics."

Lindsey, who now works nationally as a marijuana activist, received a 
suspended sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to maintain a 
drug premises. His law licence was also suspended.

Washington was released early from prison by U.S. District Judge Dana 
Christensen in 2014 at a hearing where federal prosecutors sought to 
extend his sentence.


In an interview, U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter would not comment on 
whether the federal government will continue to prioritize the 
prosecution of medical marijuana providers as they slowly increase in Montana.

Cotter referenced a memorandum from Deputy U.S. Attorney General 
James Cole that outlines factors prosecutors should consider in 
enforcing the federal marijuana ban in light of the legalization of 
medical and recreational marijuana in some states.

The department, Cotter said, will continue to focus on drug 
trafficking organizations and said sometimes there's a linkage 
between marijuana and other drugs, like methamphetamine.

He said the department also wants to focus on preventing the 
distribution of marijuana to minors and stop a stream of marijuana 
revenue to gangs and cartels.

"We review marijuana cases on a case-by-case basis," Cotter said. "We 
review all available information, including whether or not the 
operation is in compliance with the state regulatory system."

That regulatory system in Montana is still up for debate.

"There is an immense amount of confusion over what the law does allow 
and doesn't allow," Lindsey said. "I think everybody is looking to 
the Supreme Court to provide some clarity."

Pincolini said her clinics are much more professional and discreet 
than the clinics offered in earlier years. She said both Alternative 
Wellness of Northwestern Montana and Billings Alternative Wellness 
contract with local Montana doctors, who will see a maximum of about 
30 patients a day.

For $150, patients receive a medical exam, a consultation for a 
recommendation, information about the law and a provider. They are 
also required to submit their medical records.

"Our businesses are trying to set a standard for patient care," she 
said. "That's really what we are striving for."

Fanuzzi also advertises marijuana clinics held throughout the state. 
He claims these clinics have little to do with the previous medical 
marijuana "caravans."

Fanuzzi has also opened dispensaries in Helena and Butte this summer, 
increasing his total to four throughout the Montana.

"If I didn't do it, then people would get the service imported 
illegally from someone who is not paying taxes," he said. "I strongly 
support local production and I think it's very very important. The 
economy is important and the well-being of our people is important. 
And how we handle the issue is important."

It's a risk and he knows it. His business and medical marijuana 
remain in uncharted territory.

"(The state's) solution to regulating is banning," Lindsey said. "And 
in the meantime, the ban effort has been blocked. It's a precarious 
situation because business is the cross-hairs."

"It's really a repeat of the situation we had leading into the raids," he added.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom