By John Schroyer
Just a few months after Montana voters resurrected the state’s medical cannabis industry, dispensaries appear to be leaping quickly back into business.
“It’s turned 182,” Billings dispensary owner Rich Abromeit joked, combining a reference to Initiative 182 – the ballot measure voters approved in November – with the 180 degrees the state’s industry seems to have spun since last year.
The Montana industry seemed to be in dire straits a little more than a year ago after a state Supreme Court decision that ultimately forced dispensary owners to close or mothball their operations by the end of August.
But Initiative 182, placed on the ballot by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and approved by a solid 58% of the vote, has breathed new life into an MMJ market where many dispensaries ended up being closed for three or four months before reopening.
An important part of the resurrection is that the industry never truly died. It simply was forced to shrink, because medical cannabis providers were limited to three patients apiece.
While that was generally too small for a workable dispensary business model, many MMJ insiders kept growing and helping patients as caregivers.
And now, many of those dispensaries are fully back in business.
A matter of scale
One longtime Montana dispensary operator who slowed his operation before reopening recently is Charlie Gaillard, who runs a pair of dispensaries in Big Sky and Ennis, both named Lone Peak Caregivers.
Gaillard estimated 100-200 patients are now registered with his dispensaries, and 40-60 more client applications are being processed by the state. (Montana law requires that patients have one medical marijuana provider, meaning they can make purchases only at a single dispensary instead of being able to shop around, as many other states allow.)
“We’ve been seeing quite a few number of people who are signing back up that had had their cards previously, and what’s even more exciting is we’re seeing a whole new generation of people who didn’t have their cards prior, but now are getting them.”
Gaillard said a lot of Montana MMJ dispensary owners took the same path he did.
“Some people got out, and some people shut down and opened back up,” Gaillard said. “But most definitely probably scaled back as per the law, kept their genetics going and then ramped back up when we were allowed.”
Alternative ReLeaf, in the tiny northern Montana town of Libby, is another example of new growth in the Montana industry.
Owner Jon Meister said he and his wife, Barbie Turner, reopened their long-shuttered dispensary doors on Feb. 1, after I-182 passed and a district judge ruled dispensaries could resume operations immediately, without waiting for state regulations to be written.
Meister and Turner ran a dispensary from 2010 to 2012, but they closed the business amid widespread industry raids by federal agents. So Meister became a small-scale MMJ caregiver.
But after the recent legal victories through the election and the judge’s order, Meister and Turner decided it was time to return to the dispensary business.
Business has been good so far, Meister said.
Though he currently has only about 30 registered patients to whom he can legally sell MMJ, that number is probably going to increase, he said.
“Every day, I have people coming in here” seeking information on how to become registered MMJ patients, Meister said.
“Do I think that everything is going to go good? Yes, I want to think that, otherwise I wouldn’t have put myself in this position again,” he added.
Patients registering again
Abromeit estimated that his Billings dispensary, Montana Advanced Caregivers, has already signed up over 300 patients again, and he’s almost certain more will sign up in coming months.
“It’s a revival of the MMJ program here in Montana,” said Abromeit, who reopened his dispensary in early December, just days after the judge’s ruling. “We’re starting to serve more and more patients each week.”
State records back up his contention.
In November, there were just 7,558 registered MMJ patients. That number jumped to 9,666 in January and to 11,487 in February. However, patient counts still lag far behind the state’s high of 30,000 in 2011.
There are 547 medical marijuana providers currently registered with the state, but the program doesn’t differentiate between caregivers and dispensaries. So it’s difficult to estimate how many actual dispensaries may have reopened.
But the number is growing, industry insiders say.
Based on anecdotal evidence and what he’s heard through the grapevine, Abromeit estimated the number of marijuana-related businesses around Billings alone has gone up by a third.
“I’m just seeing from social media, like off Facebook, ‘Check out the new dispensary my friend started.’ Different things like that. We’re starting to follow those,” Abromeit said. “We’re starting to hear that, and we wouldn’t even hear about that a year ago, because people were worried about us shutting down. It wasn’t really the arena to start a business a year ago.”
More changes coming
Lone Peak Caregivers’ Gaillard said he believes there’ll be a bigger influx of medical marijuana businesses in Montana as the climate continues to stabilize. The state Department of Health and Human Services is slated to issue new industry rules by June 30, and a bill to regulate the MMJ trade has been introduced in the state legislature.
“Just like in any industry, I think you’re going to see existing businesses expand and you’re going to see new people trying to come in,” Gaillard predicted.
There are more changes coming for businesses, such as mandated product testing that will likely go into effect in 2018, and annual health department inspections.
But, in Gaillard’s view, “The future is bright.”
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]