The medical marijuana situation has passed the point of ridiculousness and is now firmly in the realm of the tragic. Unfortunately, all indications are that Montana can expect increasing problems with crime, violence and outrageous behavior until we finally get a handle on our medical marijuana problem.
Last month, for example, was a doozy.
That's when a man was arrested on federal charges for transporting marijuana from illegal sources in northern California to local dispensaries in Missoula.
And when another young man pleaded not guilty to allegations he stole pot plants from the home of a medical marijuana grower in Kalispell who was beaten to death in April.
And when four medical marijuana "caregivers" pleaded not guilty to charges of beating a man they suspected of robbing a medical marijuana dispensary in Ravalli County.
And when a Whitefish doctor was fined for providing substandard care stemming from her participation in a "cannabis caravan," or traveling clinic in which doctors see large numbers of patients in a short amount of time. The Whitefish physician, for example, saw about 150 patients in less than 15 hours. That breaks down to less than 6 minutes per patient.
Also in May, two medical marijuana dispensaries in Billings were firebombed shortly before the city council passed a six-month moratorium on new pot shops within city limits.
But these are only a sample of some of the worst cases of medical marijuana-related crime. To better grasp the heights of absurdity to which medical marijuana has taken us, we must also note the regular - and apparently, popular - mass clinics that bring in doctors from outside Montana to recommend marijuana to large numbers of people, at least some of whom seem to be suffering from very minor, temporary ailments - such as hemorrhoids or car sickness.
This is not what Montanans intended when more than 60 percent of voters approved the Medical Marijuana Act in 2004. That initiative was meant to help those in severe, persistent pain caused by medical conditions like cancer. And basically, that's exactly how it functioned for the first few years - until the Obama administration announced last October that it would not enforce federal drug laws on people using medical marijuana in accordance with the laws in their states.
Technically, Montana's act permits patients who have a "debilitating" medical condition, and a certification from their doctor, to apply for a state-issued card that allows them to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. Card-carrying medical marijuana patients may then designate a "caregiver" to provide marijuana to them. And that, really, does not sound so bad.
But what we have instead is a too-vague law rife with loopholes that opportunists are using to engage in drug dealing. We have doctors essentially selling their signatures at mass clinics. We have people administering their "medicine" in public places, parolees being issued "green cards" and an exploding industry that has more to do with profiteering than meeting legitimate medical needs.
We also have an increasing number of marijuana-related traffic deaths. Last year, marijuana was involved in
39 vehicle fatalities in Montana, an increase from 33 in 2008 and 32 in
And, of course, we have a steeply rising increase in the number of pot-smoking patients and pot-selling providers. According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, as of May 31 the state counted 16,927 patients in its registry. Missoula alone counts 2,390 patients - and 479 of the state's total 3,438 registered caregivers.
This means there are approximately five patients per caregiver in Missoula County - hardly enough to support a budding business. When Montanans approved the Medical Marijuana Act, we envisioned a "caregiver" as someone who would provide medical marijuana to only a handful of patients at the most. We did not expect to see storefronts on nearly every corner advertising to the wider public - and putting profits ahead of medicine.
Given the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still has not approved marijuana for medical use, and the uncertain future of the drug at the federal level, the proliferation of pot shops is troubling. That is, in large part, why communities across Montana are proposing zoning changes or approving temporary moratoriums on pot shops. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, for instance, has outright banned the sale of marijuana to Native Americans within the borders of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
So far, however, Missoula's lawmakers have not taken any action to rein in medical marijuana businesses. They should.
Until the state can straighten out the rampant problems with the Medical Marijuana Act, Missoula should order existing dispensaries to cease doing business and impose an immediate moratorium on new shops.
Such a measure would not affect legitimate patients, who would still be able to use medical marijuana, nor legitimate caregivers, who would still be free to provide it. But it would put an immediate end to what is essentially drug dealing until Montana can
get its medical marijuana issues under control.