Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Montana Wants to Make Marijuana More Legitimate
Helena facility hopes to make medical marijuana more legitimate
By Eliza Wiley
HELENA — Walking into the Montana Cannabis nursery is surreal, given
America's decades-old war on drugs that hearkens back to the 1936 movie
At one end of the company's brightly lit warehouse on the outskirts of
Helena, stand about a dozen 5- to 6-foot-tall "mother plants," their
bright green leaves emitting a light, yet distinct marijuana aroma.
Their different genetic strains — Wonder Woman, Diesel, Northern
Lights, Black Skunk, Holy Roller — are written on pieces of tape
attached to each planter.
"These are our thoroughbreds, " attorney Chris Lindsey, a former public
defender and one of four Montana Cannabis founding members, says
Farther down the aisle around 100 marijuana plants sit in pots on
pallets, with watering hoses hanging from the ceiling. These are
smaller, maybe 3 to
4 feet tall, and some are just days away from having their fuzzy buds
harvested, which are what most marijuana users smoke. The Wonder Woman
buds are literally the size of actress Lynda Carter's forearm, while
those on the Northern Lights plants are smaller, more delicate. The
Black Skunk buds are a dark purple and incredibly stinky. Holy Roller is
green with red highlights, emitting an earthy scent.
Around the corner is the on-site kitchen and living quarters, where
gourmet Chef Tim Williams is trying out recipes. All of them involve
marijuana in some form, like the focaccia with pesto, dried tomatoes and
herbs, drizzled with marijuana infused olive oil. Montana Cannabis also
offers marijuana butter that can be added to any favorite recipe, from
cookies to pancakes or used to top toast. Peppermint-flavored cannabis
lip or body balm can be rubbed on lips and muscles. Liquid cannabis
elixirs can be used directly or added to tea. "We're working on
gluten-free and diabetic lines," Williams said. "I'm also working on a
cookie recipe, trying to get them to stay fluffy at this altitude."
The tour ends in the walk-in safe, where six bins hold dozens of bags of
dried buds, vacuum-sealed in half-ounce and 1-ounce baggies that are
ready for sale to medical marijuana patients. Altogether, it's an
operation that many people never thought would see the light of day. And
even though voters overwhelmingly passed a law in Montana in 2004 that
made medical marijuana legal, it's still an under-the-radar business for
"Everyone would like to be out in the open, but in the day-to-day
business we keep it pretty quiet," Lindsey notes. "It's an amazing
challenge. We feel like we're always re-engineering the plane in
The Montana Medical Marijuana Act says patients with certain specific,
debilitating medical conditions like cancer, glaucoma, multiple
sclerosis or Crohn's disease, or those who suffer from medical
conditions that cause them chronic pain, severe nausea or seizures, can
possess up to six marijuana plants and 1 ounce of the dried product.
It's common for people seeking medical marijuana to be trying to replace
a narcotic, notes Tom Daubert, another Montana Cannabis co-founder.
A person doesn't get a prescription from a doctor. Instead, the doctor
signs a recommendation and certifies in writing that the patient has a
debilitating medical condition and the benefits of using marijuana for
medical purposes probably outweigh the health risks. The patient then
registers with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services
and pays a $25 fee, with annual updates costing $10. Roy Kemp, in charge
of the registry for the DPHHS, said as of Oct. 22, 4,486 people were
registered as medical marijuana patients in Montana, and he has about
1,000 requests pending.
He added that Montana has 1,402 registered caregivers who can legally
provide medical marijuana to the registered patients.
In the past few weeks, he's gotten anywhere from 168 to 497 registry
requests each week.
"I just received 300 alone on Monday and Tuesday this week," he said on
Friday. "I don't know why, but I assume there's either greater access to
physicians or people are just more aware of the program."
It seems pretty straightforward. But it's not. While more than 220
physicians in Montana are registered with the state to participate in
the program, Lindsey noted that some physicians aren't comfortable
making recommendations. Ron Hull, a doctor at Helena's Pain Management
Clinic, falls into that category. "I'm trying to be open-minded about
it, but I tell people that in my heart, I'm not sure that's what they
should be doing," Hull said. "Everybody has the right to make their
choice, but I'm waiting for some kind of endorsement by national medical
societies that treat chronic pain."
But he will refer patients to physicians who are ready to make
Yet even after a person is recommended and registered, it can be
difficult to find medical marijuana. It's still considered a Schedule 1
drug by the federal government, so it's not like patients can pick it up
at a pharmacy. Marijuana doesn't grow naturally in Montana, either, so
someone, somewhere, had to bring it into the Treasure State —
potentially a federal offense by crossing state lines.
Patients who finally find plants face new challenges. Different stages
of growth need different amounts of light to produce buds. Stressing the
plants by too much or too little water or heat can cause the typically
female plants to sprout male flowers that produce seeds, and different
strains can inadvertently get mixed together. The wrong bugs, like
spider mites, can be deadly. And you have to know how to either grow
seeds or take cuttings to get new plants, since the final product is the
That's where organizations like Montana Cannabis come in. The law
provides for a caregiver to either provide plants to patients or sell
them up to an ounce.
But that doesn't mean it's easy for them either.
"It's like any type of farming; you get little setbacks, like for us,
the light changed sooner than we wanted this year and we had to make
some changes quickly," said Chris Williams, another company co-founder
and the operation's resident farmer. "We can't get crop insurance, apart
from fire damage."
It's not easy to find a landlord willing to house a marijuana nursery.
Montana Cannabis was rejected by one local bank that didn't want to be
associated with their industry. They can't take credit cards. And they
have to hand-deliver their marijuana to patients throughout Big Sky
Country — UPS, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service won't touch their
They can have six plants for every patient for whom they are a
registered caregiver. But while every plant has an "owner" in a sense,
multiple people may be using buds from the same plant.
Those buds can only be harvested once the plant dies and is dried out,
so caregivers like Montana Cannabis need to have a steady source of
plants in various stages of growth.
Those thoroughbred "mother plants" fill the bill. Chris Williams takes
small cuttings and puts them in an "aeroponic" mini-greenhouse, where
they're misted until they grow roots. At that point, they're considered
one of the six plants a patient can own. They're eventually potted as
Because of the constant rotation, and the thin line between being seen
as a legal business and a black-market drug dealer, Montana Cannabis is
meticulous about its record keeping.
Chris Williams walks over to a wall filled with charts, and grabs one.
"We have every plant in the batch listed and the total number of plants.
Every time they're even watered we write it down. We know the nutrient
levels, the air temperatures. We can track our plant numbers directly to
a patient," he says, flipping through the pages. "I hope to use bar
codes in the future, so when an officer comes in we can pull up the
inventory on a computer screen.
"We want law enforcement to know that this is the 5 percent of the
market that is legitimate. I'm sure it's hard for them to walk in here
and not think they've hit the jackpot."
The group adds that they're adamant about security. They don't want
somebody breaking in to steal their product, so at least one person, and
often more, are on site 24/7. They also take additional precautions, but
don't want to delve into those.
Sarah Baugh in Billings is a Montana Cannabis patient who suffers from
epileptic seizures and wasn't getting much relief from pharmaceuticals.
"I was having grand mal seizures. They're very violent; you flip around,
go rigid, you drool ... it looks like you're dying," Baugh said. "I was
having up to 12 petit mal and grand mal seizures a day."
A friend recommended she try marijuana, and it seemed to help. So Baugh
asked several local physicians to give her a recommendation so she could
legally obtain medical marijuana.
"They weren't very willing, so I contacted Montana NORML — the
National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws — and let them know
what was going on," Baugh said. "They put me in touch with Montana
She says she hasn't had a violent seizure for months.
"I'm using their medical strains, and love Capital Granddad. It's good
all day," Baugh said. "That company has been really good to me, and
helped me change my life."
But she, like many other patients, doesn't openly smoke marijuana in
public because of the societal stigmas still attached to it —
stigmas they hope will someday fade. That stigma is one reason why
Montana Cannabis doesn't or advertise its wares have a sign at its
"You find yourselves wanting to be a legitimate business, but feel
sometimes like a black-market dealer," Chris Williams said. "Sometimes
you have to meet someone in a parking lot. People don't like placing
orders over the phone."
"I was with a new patient once, sitting in a restaurant and pulled out
the medicine, and the patient goes `What are you doing?' " Daubert
added, laughing. "The restaurant knew what I was doing there and didn't
care, but the patient was a little nervous."
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