Growing Marijuana Legal Under State Law

September 13, 2008

Livingston, MT — Downtown Livingston has gone to pot.

In the open garage doorway of a small white warehouse, six blocks from the Park County Sheriff’s Office and minutes from the nouveau eateries and art galleries where tourists stroll, Homer Terry churns ice into a five-gallon bucket of marijuana.

It’s a hot Friday afternoon. The whir of Terry’s power drill and stir paddle mixes with the shovel chucks of a nearby railroad crew spreading gravel. He gives the customary Montana greeting of a slight head nod and an easy smile to passers-by, but otherwise he keeps working, blending bits of marijuana into a potent smokable paste.

Some would say Terry is making hashish, but the man with drill in hand churning a icy drink of cannabis prefers to say he’s harvesting “tri-chromes,” that is, the secretions of resins rich in THC forming on the exterior of discarded marijuana plant matter. Others would say Terry and the other half-dozen volunteers toiling on the northern edge of a busy thoroughfare in this sleepy railroad town are growing dope. Terry, a volunteer at the medical-marijuana growing co-op, would say he’s making medicine. And the state of Montana agrees.

It has been four years since Montana voters cast an overwhelming vote to legalize medical marijuana. The ballot initiative, allowing patients with a doctor’s referral to grow as many as six marijuana plants for medicinal purposes, garnered more voter support that November than Gov. Brian Schweitzer or U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg.

In practice, however the law is receiving mixed reviews. Patient groups and legally sanctioned growers say they now navigate a vague legal path with enough unexpected curves to send some, unintentionally, into violation of drug laws.

Likewise, law enforcement officials say they are seeing the emergence of a marijuana culture they didn’t expect, with a few large indoor marijuana farms and a shield of confidentiality preventing detectives from determining whether business is being done according to law.

In practice, medical marijuana didn’t take root right away in Montana. Even after the law passed with 63 percent approval Nov. 2, 2004, newspaper accounts of the vote suggested that “Montanans suffering from certain medical conditions may be able to legally smoke marijuana” with emphasis on the word “may,” not “can.” Prior to the vote, Montanans were warned by U.S. deputy drug czar Scott Burns that federal law trumps state law and that Montana wouldn’t be a safe harbor for legal cannabis.

Except for a few incidents, however, medical marijuana in Montana hasn’t resulted in many arrests by federal or state officials. State registration of patients approved to use medical marijuana has more than tripled in the last year, said Roy Kemp, who issues medical-marijuana licenses for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“We had 1,280 registered patients this July,” said Kemp, who receives 40 to 50 applications a week. “We had 358 last July.”

State health officials run a registry of patients, Kemp said. It tracks the number of participating doctors, currently 162, as well as the number of appointed caregivers, 386. The state never discloses the names of the people involved to anyone, including police.

What Kemp will disclose are the categories of qualifying conditions into which registrants fall. Patients suffering from severe and chronic pain with nausea or muscle spasms represent 70 percent of those registered for what’s conversationally called a green card, a plastic medical-marijuana license good for one year. Patients suffering from severe seizures coupled with severe nausea and muscle spasms are the second largest group, at 11 percent.

One Patient’s Experience

Included in the remaining 8 percent of registered patients is Donna Woodworth, who has struggled with diminishing weight since being treated for colon cancer 25 years ago. Appetite loss due to medical treatment or chronic condition is one of about a dozen conditions covered by the state medical-marijuana law.

“Suddenly, I can eat what I call my old-lady diet,” said Woodworth, “yogurt and mashed potatoes and some bread. Basically that’s what I eat.”

Since being approved for medical marijuana, Woodworth said, her body weight has increased from 80 pounds to 112. Using cannabis is not an easy subject to talk about, said Woodworth, who lives in Livingston and receives her marijuana from Montana Caregivers, a registered corporation that grows marijuana for some 50 medical-marijuana patients.

Marijuana use bears a stigma with or without the state card, said Woodworth, who nervously spoke of her experience while standing in Montana Caregivers’ Park Avenue office. People who casually know she uses cannabis assume she’s doing something wrong.

At the mention of implied wrongdoing, grower Ronita Minnick begins to laugh. She, her husband, David, and another grower formed a sort of co-op and started growing medical marijuana a year ago. Friends then were warning that they were all going to jail. They’ve been waiting for the bad news ever since.

“There were a lot of people saying, ‘You’re not in jail yet?’ ” said Minnick. “And some are still saying ‘You’re not in jail?’ “

‘Caregivers’ With Green Thumbs

The Minnicks are registered patients. Ronita has a degenerative diabetic eye disease. Dave’s spine was injured in an auto accident that causes him chronic pain. But they’re also caregivers, the term used by the state to identify people chosen by patients to grow medical marijuana.

Caregivers have to be selected by a patient. No selection, no authorization to grow marijuana legally. Each patient is allowed to have up to six marijuana plants. A caregiver with several patients can have a pretty big crop. The growers in Minnicks’ co-op are raising about 300 medical-marijuana plants in multiple stages under grow lights inside a secured building.

The operation is legitimate under state medical-marijuana standards, but the setting mirrors a noncertified operation. There are smoking pipes and rolling papers in the break room, along with smoke-free marijuana vaporizers for patients concerned about carcinogens.

The varieties of marijuana grown sport names like AK-47, White Widow and Kush. Different varieties produce different highs.

“It’s a large grow operation,” said Tim Barnes, a detective with the Missouri River Drug Task Force. “Minnick was in the newspapers, so we’ve always known what was going on. Dave’s pretty much been forthcoming.”

Lingering Legal Questions

Dave Minnick not only invited the detectives to check out his crop, he said he approached the Park County attorney before he got going so law enforcement wouldn’t be alarmed. They were still alarmed, Minnick said. The county prosecutor first told Minnick to leave, then called in a deputy and asked the caregiver to stay once he realized Minnick wasn’t joking.

Barnes isn’t sure large grow operations were expected when the medical-marijuana initiative passed. It’s one of many issues he thinks the law overlooked or ignored. Growers aren’t required to keep records, and because state records are tightly guarded, it’s difficult to determine if the marijuana is being grown for registered patients and if the amount of marijuana grown exceeds the limit of six plants per patient.

Barnes also has concerns about caregivers growing a small number of plants in homes where children are present. And he’s not entirely convinced everyone registered for medical marijuana needs it. There is no age limit for legally using medical marijuana.

“One of the things that concerns me is that more people are moving here because they can have access to medical marijuana,” Barnes said. “It’s all over the state, not just here.”

Patients and caregivers have concerns, too, said Tom Daubert, with Patients and Families United, an advocacy group for medical-marijuana users.

Working with law enforcement, Daubert and others are trying to work some of the kinks out of the state law. Patients and Families United would like to see some allowances for transportation by nonpatients. Patients too ill to travel now must rely on caregiver home delivery or courier, which poses problems because only patients and caregivers can possess the drug. Barnes and other detectives want more accountability written into the law.

One Missoula patient committed suicide last year after drug enforcement agents seized her marijuana because it was sent through United Parcel Service.

The group would also like to increase the amount of marijuana a patient is allowed to have on hand from an ounce, roughly a lunch bag full, to a larger amount. The group lobbied the 2007 Legislature to make the changes, but to no avail.

Federal officials would like to put the kibosh on medical marijuana, in part because they believe it undermines drug prevention programs such as the elementary school program Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE.

“I don’t have a lot of huge worries about it because I trust Americans to fix what they break, but I’m worried about the message we’re sending to our kids. That’s a tragedy,” said Jeffrey Sweetin, special agent in charge of the Rocky Mountain Division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “The kids that flunked DARE are now telling your kids, my kids, that this is medicine.”

Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning that the federal government believes it has no useful purpose. Doctors can’t prescribe the drug without breaking the law, they can only recommend it. Government agencies like the National Institutes of Health have argued for years that marijuana is damaging, Sweetin said. That argument was not heard in states where marijuana advocates have persuaded voters to allow medical marijuana.

“Please understand, we don’t ignore marijuana grow operations,” Sweetin said. “I assure you, there are thresholds at every U.S. attorney’s office.”

Not all doctors agree that marijuana is harmful. Ed Stickney, a retired physician in Billings, has written referrals for several patients. He said that particularly in pain cases, marijuana poses less of an addiction threat than powerful painkillers like OxyContin.

“I contend that if it were discovered today, marijuana would be considered a miracle drug,” Stickney said.

Source: Billings Gazette

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