Montana’s Medical Marijuana Program Goes Backwards

Over a decade ago, Montana legalised medical marijuana with 62 percent of the vote. In 2009, the Justice Department announced it would no longer prosecute law-abiding medical marijuana patients. In addition, the new DEA leadership is going softer on cannabis. So why is Montana’s medical marijuana program in danger?

The mounting restrictions in Montana are making access to cannabis almost impossible. The new restrictions could potentially render the medical marijuana program useless to some patients. Elizabeth Pincolini runs a medical marijuana clinic in Billings, Montana. “It’s hard for patients to live like that, not knowing if they’ll have their cards next year,” Pincolini told NBC News. “It’s pretty desperate.”

In 2011, the DEA raided shops across the state. That year, a bill to repeal the medical marijuana program was vetoed by then-governor Brian Schweitzer D-Montana. Cannabis prohibitionists then penned a “repeal in disguise” that was passed. Under the new law, medical marijuana providers cannot charge a penny over the recouping license application fees, making it completely unprofitable for providers to stay in business. The ulterior motive was to destroy the current medical marijuana industry in Montana. Because of the new law, medical marijuana patients in Montana dropped from 30,000 to 9,000 in June 2012. The number of providers dropped from 5,000 to about 400. A state judge was able to block three of the new restrictions, but the program is still in complete limbo.

Big Sky Patient Care is one of Montana’s biggest dispensaries. In 2011, Big Sky was raided by the DEA. “I’d probably have been shot today, because I was in their faces screaming at them, telling them that we were state-compliant,” co-owner Valerie Sigler told NBC News, “So what were they doing there?” Sigler and her husband had to watch their employees get handcuffed and thrown to the ground like criminals. Before the raid, Sigler had 400 patients and $1 million in the bank. After the DEA seized their property and slapped them with a $900,000 judgment, Sigler and her husband were $1 million in debt. During 2011, then DEA administrator Michelle Leonhart aggressively raided dispensaries across the US. Leonhart was recently forced to resign following a sex scandal. The new DEA administrator, Chuck Rosenberg, has been much more lenient.

Dispensaries still operate in Montana, but they operate in constant fear. “Anytime someone got in the limelight, they were picked off,” said an unidentified dispensary owner. Billings, a city of 110,000, has only one dispensary left. Montana Advanced Caregivers is the last one standing. “I’m a bullseye, and everyone depends on me,” co-owner Jason Smith said.

Montana doesn’t allow a legal way for patients to obtain seeds or clones. “How’s that supposed to work? A magic seed fairy is going to deliver seeds in your mailbox? To grow, the first thing you have to do is break the law,” said Josh Daniels, a patient.

Just a handful of restrictive states aren’t enough to slow momentum in the cannabis industry. Canada, Jamaica, Italy, Spain, Latin America, and many U.S. States are set to move forward with pro-cannabis initiatives in 2016.