Medical marijuana providers in Missoula have taken a somber but defiant stand in the wake of last Thursday’s 6-1 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court that severely restricts their ability to do business.
The court’s ruling upheld several provisions of a 2011 law that reined in providers. The decision means each cannabis dispensary would be able to supply the plant to only three patients starting March 11. Physicians who approve more than 25 people for medical marijuana will also face review from the state Board of Medical Examiners.
For Missoula medical marijuana dispensary owner Jason Rusch of Montana Buds, the ruling will mean he has to immediately cut off customers who depend on him.
“We’re going to tell the governor he can write the letters to patients telling them we can’t see them,” Rusch said. “He can tell the three lucky ones they won the lottery. We have right around 360 patients. That will be 357 sad folks, and it’s just the most difficult thing we’ve ever had to go through. We’re trying to comfort them the best we can. It’s the craziest thing we’ve ever seen.”
Rusch said attorney Jim Goetz of Bozeman was preparing to file an appeal sometime after March 11. Goetz did not return a call seeking comment.
Montana voters approved the use of marijuana for medical reasons back in 2004. When the U.S. Department of Justice announced in 2009 that it wouldn’t interfere with medical marijuana users who comply with state law, the industry ballooned. By 2011, there were seven times more patients – 30,000 – and three times as many providers – 4,400 – registered with the state.
Also in 2011, the state Legislature enacted a bill that imposed tighter restrictions on the booming industry. A Helena judge later blocked portions of the 2011 restrictions, and the state appealed that ruling. In 2015, Goetz filed a response to the state’s appeal and it went before the Montana Supreme Court.
As of January, there were 13,640 people enrolled in the Montana Marijuana Program with the Department of Health and Human Services. There were 471 providers and 206 physicians associated with marijuana patients.
Missoula County has 1,190 patients and 58 providers. Gallatin County has 2,826 patients and 120 providers, while Flathead County has 1,567 patients and 65 providers.
Chris Fanuzzi, the founder and CEO of Lionheart Caregiving, a medical marijuana dispensary in Missoula, said he’s going to fight to stay open. He said his business has nearly 800 patients and is one of the largest providers in the state.
“We went through this once before in 2011,” he said. “I lost all my patients and had to destroy my product. It could be devastating to many people’s jobs. It’s possible that we might have to restructure to remain in compliance with the law. But I do want to keep my doors open and continue to provide service to patients. I’m vowing to do everything in my power to do that.”
Fanuzzi said the state will lose the tax revenue generated by employers like him.
“In 2011, the state lost a tremendous amount of tax benefits,” he said. “This is a killer of our community. When people move out of the state, that affects businesses. When people stop paying taxes, that affects businesses. It’s ludicrous to discriminate against people because they use cannabis. People are going to suffer. This is a de facto prohibition, basically.”
Fanuzzi said cannabis is used by many people as an alternative to dangerous opioids to manage pain.
“This seems unreasonable and unfair,” he said. “I had a lady who was a patient who died. In 2011, she was denied safe access, so she decided to go back on prescription pain medication. Just a few days later, she died from an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. At the time, I was thinking to myself that she would be alive if the law was intact.”
He said the Montana Supreme Court is pushing back against the will of the people.
“This is clearly going against what people wanted,” he said. “Patients put their identities on the line and submitted to background checks. They are paying the expensive fees to their doctor and to the state. They expect a reciprocal commitment. Thousands of people followed protocol on the basis that they would have safe and legal access to cannabis."
Anthony Varriano, a Billings-based marijuana advocate, is organizing more than 150 signature gatherers across the state to put a measure on the November ballot that would legalize, regulate and tax the sale of marijuana. They have to collect 24,178 signatures, and Varriano estimates they’ve gotten between 5,000 and 8,000 so far.
Varriano was also approved to collect nearly 50,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment that would block the Legislature from repealing the amendment and allow adults older than 21 to possess, purchase and consume marijuana.