Jesse James, a 27-year-old house painter from Seeley Lake, came to Missoula’s downtown Holiday Inn last week to see a doctor and find someone who could provide him with a regular supply of medical marijuana.
He didn’t mind the long wait in the hotel’s atrium, sitting side-by-side with hundreds of other people who had traveled across western Montana for the same reason.
They had come to the cannabis convention hosted by the Montana Caregivers Network, a Missoula-based organization that works statewide to help people get access to physicians who support marijuana for medical treatment and a medical marijuana card so they can legally use the drug.
These conventions attract 3,000 to 4,000 new patients each month, and are responsible, in large part, for the booming business of Montana’s medical marijuana caregivers – the people who grow and provide medical-grade cannabis.
To date, Montana has 10,582 registered medical marijuana patients and 2,635 caregivers.
For James, who suffers vertebrae damage from his years of racing – and crashing – motorcycles, the event is a lifeline.
“I’ve seen other doctors, and all of them want me to get MRIs and surgery,” James said. “I can’t afford that, I don’t have insurance and in the end, no one I know who has ever had back surgery came out of it better off.
“This is my best alternative – getting medical marijuana,” he said. “I used to take Loratab and other heavy pain relievers, but they make me sick and I can’t work. I work for a living, and I want to work pain free.”
Yet it is here, at these conventions, where the gray areas in the state’s medical marijuana law are so clearly on display.
Patients don’t need medical records to discuss their condition with the physicians on hand. And doctors don’t need medical records to recommend the drug to patients or to sign the form that is required by state law for patients to gain legal sanction for marijuana use.
Some of the doctors “see” patients online, through teleclinics; most of the 30-some doctors Montana Caregivers Network has hired to work at its many conventions are physicians who are licensed in Montana, but don’t live in-state.
The situation is unique, said Wayne Kawalek, an Ohio-based physician who was moonlighting at the Missoula convention last week.
Without medical records, recommending medical marijuana becomes a matter of trust between patient and doctor, said Kawalek, who earns the bulk of his paycheck as the in-house physician at a soon-to-be-shuttered Chrysler plant in Cleveland.
“I do take people at face value,” he said. “It is a judgment call.”
As the atrium hummed with the small talk of waiting patients, a cannabis fair was underway in the hotel’s conference room. Most of the tables promoted the services of local caregivers who grow medical-grade cannabis; many tables showcased the various tools, such as pipes and vaporizing machines, that help patients inhale the drug.
Mellisse Klare, a Missoula waitress, was there talking about her caregiving service and the marijuana she grows on 11 rented acres. Excited about her new business, she is concerned about her renter status and what her landlord thinks about her crop. She worries, too, about the zoning issues that have prevented caregivers from growing marijuana in other Montana cities.
Jason Christ, organizer of the event, mingled with the crowd, holding a giant glass pipe with medical marijuana in the bowl, answering questions and periodically exiting the hotel to smoke with some friends – all card-carrying patients themselves – in a van parked outside the hotel’s entry.
Hotel employees looked tense as the convention crowd flowed through, many of them holding drug paraphernalia, more than a few them leaving behind the distinctive smell of marijuana.
Such large-scale events as the Missoula Cannabis Convention and the seemingly uncontrolled business boom across the state don’t sit well with many longtime leaders within the medical marijuana community.
“I think there are a lot of people who supported the initiative that are concerned that what is happening now is not what they intended,” said Tom Daubert, a lobbyist who led the successful 2004 campaign for Initiative 148, and who became so inspired by the pain patients seeking medical-marijuana relief that he founded Patients and Families and United, an education and advocacy group for pain patients.
“I would contend a lot of what is happening is not what was intended by those who wrote and promoted the initiative,” he said. “Our concerns build around the fact before there was this explosive growth in patient and caregiver numbers, we were a smaller community and there was unified understanding around patients, caregivers, communities, law enforcement – and a lot of consensus.
“But today, there are a number of concerns, in particular, the large clinics – and the behavior of the people operating some of those clinic and conventions has incited a huge and growing amount of backlash that has taken on a life of its own and is somewhat out of control.”
On many issues, Daubert and his circle of medical marijuana supporters find themselves sharing the same concerns law enforcement has expressed, particularly issues regarding the lack of regulation and oversight.
The zoning ordinances under discussion in some Montana cities, such as Great Falls, are intended to keep marijuana growers outside city limits, said Jim Gingery, director of Montana Medical Growers.
From the city council bench, that might be a good thing, but for legitimate growers, such policies make it difficult to conduct business legally.
“Right now because of the law and what cities have done with moratoriums is increasing the illegal market in some cities,” Gingery said. “I really do think that because of the restrictions and because of the growing demand, the illegal market has increased – and nobody wants that.”
Working toward transparency and consensus will lead this issue out of the gray zone and into the more comfortable legal world that is closer to black and white, Daubert said. Those who have promoted, pushed for and worked to get Montana’s law in place want that to happen.
“We are totally committed to the goal of finding as much consensus on how to regulate distributors and producers in ways that control things, that provide for complete accountability and professionalism, and allow the spirit and purpose of the law to be fulfilled for patients,” Daubert said.
Despite having many concerns about how the law is being used today, it’s important for everyone who is following the growing pains of the medical marijuana business not to forget that the people it was written for are being well served, he said.
“This law is saving lives and hugely improving the quality of life for thousands of patients around the state,” Daubert said. “There is no question about that.”
Reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.