Nationwide lessons from Montana’s upheaval

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By John Schroyer

Dispensary owner Rich Abromeit summed up last week’s brutal Montana Supreme Court decision – which effectively bans medical marijuana businesses across the state – in just five words.

“They’ve completely wiped us out,” he said.

The 6-1 ruling by the state Supreme Court culminates a nearly five-year battle between local cannabis activists and lawmakers who oppose the proliferation of MMJ dispensaries in Montana.

Mort Reid – president of the Montana Cannabis Information Association (MTCIA) – said the ruling should serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the MMJ industry, given that it’s arguably the biggest statewide setback for the cannabis trade in recent years.

“What happened here in Montana, it could happen anywhere, and people need to be aware that they need to be vigilant about what’s going on in their legislature,” Reid said.

The 2011 law that was mostly affirmed by the state Supreme Court last week is widely acknowledged to have been designed to regulate dispensaries out of business. Chris Lindsey, a Montana-based analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, said it looks as though it will do just that.

Among other things, the law prohibits dispensaries from advertising, and will also limit any MMJ provider to only three patients. That’s simply not enough to maintain a viable business, said Abromeit.

“It’s kind of blood in the streets,” Lindsey said. “Certainly the storefronts, those are probably going to have to shut down, because caregivers cannot be co-located, and at a certain point, whenever the state determines that this law is fully in effect, they’d be limited to two patients, or three if the caregiver is also a patient.”

Abromeit said he’s still got his fingers crossed for a “Hail Mary,” but that he’s already making plans to close up shop and relocate to either California, Colorado, Oregon or Washington State.

“We have to relocate once we become criminals in our own state,” he said.

Nonetheless, some industry professionals are holding out hope that Montana’s MMJ storefronts can be saved.

Attorney James Goetz, who represented the MTCIA in the legal fight, said on Friday that he’ll “probably” be filing a “reconsideration” motion with the court, a last resort effort to overturn the decision.

The motion must be filed within 15 days of the court’s decision, which was issued on Feb. 25. The state will have another 15 days to respond, and the ruling itself from the court can’t take effect until that process has run its course, Goetz said.

That means dispensaries should have at least a temporary stay of execution, for up to a month.

On top of that, the MTCIA is still trying to organize and raise money for a potential ballot measure this November that would basically reverse the court’s decision by fully legalizing dispensaries, overcoming a flaw in the 2004 ballot initiative that initially legalized MMJ.

“It’s a bill that provides for a structured business model that’s well-regulated and satisfies the needs of the community,” said Mort Reid, president of the MTCIA, though he added that the precise language of the initiative is still being hammered out.

The MTCIA is already working with M+R Consulting, a professional signature gathering firm, but Reid acknowledged that the campaign is short on funds. He estimated they’ll probably need to raise about $200,000 just to qualify for the November ballot. To do that, he said, they’ll need to pay petition circulators to get around 35,000 signatures by June 17.

“It’s pushing the envelope, but we’re confident we can get it done,” Reid said, before adding, “We’re still in the process of fundraising, and we could use help from any quarter.”

Lindsey added that M+R’s involvement is a positive sign.

“If that organization is willing to jump in, that tells me there’s enough time to get this on the ballot. The question is whether the ballot language is good, and will they get the money?” Lindsey said.

If the MTCIA succeeds in getting the issue back onto the statewide ballot, that could reinstate dispensaries in the long term, but they’ll most likely still have to shut down this spring until after the election.

Meanwhile, other dispensary owners are just waiting to see what happens. So far, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), which oversees the state’s MMJ program and industry, hasn’t issued any statements or orders to dispensaries on the matter.

“My plans are to continue to operate as we have for the last six years until we are notified by the DPHHS… as to how to comply, if indeed we’re forced to comply,” said Charlie Gaillard, the owner of Lone Peak Caregivers, another Montana dispensary. “They just threw their latest punch, and we’ll see what kind of shot we can take back at them.”

Gaillard isn’t certain what avenue he’d like to see industry leadership take, but he said he’d like to see something, whether that’s an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, or some kind of lawsuit against the state, or the dispensary ballot measure MTCIA is working on.

One thing he knows is he’s not supportive of either of the two recreational ballot measures that are also aiming for the November ballot. He’d simply like to see the MMJ industry protected.

But if the efforts to save dispensaries is ultimately unsuccessful, he’s also ready to leave Montana, just like Abromeit.

“I’ve been looking at that for some time,” Gaillard said.

John Schroyer can be reached at