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Montana’s cannabis industry is getting back on track after state lawmakers approved a measure correcting restrictive regulations and a drafting error in the state’s voter initiative that rattled its medical cannabis providers.

The Montana state Congress amended Initiative 182 (I-182) in February and has passed it on to the governor, where it awaits his signature. The citizen-voted initiative from the November election struck down regulations on cannabis dispensaries, including a three-patient limit. The three-patient restriction was passed by the state Congress in 2011 and took effect last summer, forcing many businesses to close while limiting access for many patients.

Nate Prince, owner of Five Leaf Organics in Flathead Valley, Mont., welcomed the relief. He serves less than 50 patients, but had to close the door to most of them after the regulation took hold this past summer.

“When you’re trying to run a business like that, to just arbitrarily have to close down, there are no words. That’s a difficult situation,” Prince says. “Most [of my patients] were pretty good about it. But there was a lot of frustration.”

The way I-182 was written allowed the three-patient regulation to be upheld until summer 2017 instead of repealed immediately as the sponsors intended. State Senator Fred Thomas (R-44th District) introduced a bill Jan. 18 that would end the obstructive regulation immediately.

“I introduced it because the effective dates need to be fixed [as] soon as possible and honor the public’s vote,” Sen. Thomas says.

MMJ’s Rocky Road in Montana

The trials of running a cannabis business in Montana have existed for years. There were federal raids on 26 facilities in 2011. Prince says a lot of businesses have “thrown their hands up” due to the rocky state laws. There has also been added trouble for patients.

“They were basically told that they had to become criminals if they wanted to continue using the medicine of their choice,” Prince says.

Advocates, including Montanans Ensuring Access to Natural Medicines (MEANM) President Kimberly Faechner, say state lawmakers are still unwilling to embrace the medicinal usage of cannabis.

“It’s marijuana; it has that stigma attached to it. … And that’s got older politicians scared still,” Faechner says.

Nate Prince in a Five Leaf Organics grow room in Montana. Prince had to turn away most of his patients after the state’s three-patient restriction took hold last August.
Photo courtesy of Nate Prince

Even with the Montana legislature working to fix the three-patient ruling, for many, the damage to the business side has already been done. “It basically put providers out of business,” Faechner says.

Dispensary owners faced tough decisions to either close or essentially put their operation on life support while waiting for legislative changes.

“A lot of dispensaries kept the three patients that they could ... just so they could keep the mother plants and strains alive,” Prince says. “Shutting down a dispensary or a grow operation and then firing it back up again is a pretty extensive, time-intensive process.”

Montana’s political battle to regulate medical marijuana has been a constant since the Montana Medical Marijuana Allowance initiative passed in 2004.

In 2011, the state Senate passed the bill that acted as a “repeal in disguise” by imposing restrictions on the medical marijuana industry—most notably the three-patient rule per dispensary—which went into effect in August 2016.

In the most recent voting cycle, I-182 was passed with almost 58 percent of the vote. A district judge ruled in December that the law was written in error and ordered for the patient limit to be removed immediately. Thomas’ bill will repeal the regulation and comply with the court order.

“It’s been extremely difficult trying to build an actual business and obey by state laws when they’re constantly in flux,” Prince says.

Shutting down a dispensary or a grow operation and then firing it back up again is a pretty extensive, time-intensive process.” – Nate Prince, Owner, Five Leaf Organics

Where is the Medical Cannabis Industry Headed?

With few roadblocks left, the Montana statutes will permit safe access for patients and enable industry stakeholders to operate in a more legal, public framework.

“In 15 to 20 years, it might have a huge impact on transformation of the healthcare industry,” says Daniel Fuchs, a lobbyist working with MEANM.

The new legislation will allow regulation over key functions, similar to other states, such as seed-to-sale tracking, cannabis taxes and testing.

“I think that people that are really against [this] will see that the industry [is] trying to do the responsible thing by having the regulations, by wanting the testing,” Faechner says. “You can’t have your brother Billy testing your stuff.”

It has taken more than 10 years for Montanan medical marijuana supporters to get to this point, but advocates feel the future of medical cannabis will be OK.

“This is my community, and I’ve really gotten to know and respect a lot of the people that I work with, and I really want to see something good come out of this,” Prince says. “Because there are a lot of people that have really suffered during this last year.”

Sam Fiske and Sean Froelich are freelance reporters and producers in Chicago. Along with their colleague John Rosin, they team a production crew and create videos covering politics, tech, business and culture. The team also creates dozens of videos for their original news network, Toughington Post.