MISSOULA — People who live in pain aren’t the only Montanans benefiting from the state’s medical marijuana law. In the past seven months, ever since the federal government said it would defer to state medical marijuana laws with regard to determining legal and illegal use of the drug, Montana’s cannabis industry has boomed.
Garden supply companies, real estate agents, insurance providers, irrigation experts, attorneys, Web developers and security companies are among the many mainstream businesses that are getting a fiscal high from the fast-growing industry. When the national recession brought a near standstill to the Missoula real estate market last year, Wayne Smith, a real estate agent with RE/MAX, was juggling several vacant properties.
As a result, Smith was more than willing to work with two men who wanted to turn one of his properties into a medical marijuana dispensary. Smith looked into what it would take to renovate his Missoula Industrial Park property and meet the codes for such a business and followed through with the necessary changes. Although his potential clients bailed on the deal at the last minute, Smith wasn’t ready to give up on all of the time, work and money he had invested in the property, and he placed an ad on Craigslist for the turnkey dispensary.
“Things just exploded from there,” Smith said. “I suddenly had 20 clients looking for space.”
Since last fall, Smith has helped fill 12 previously vacant rental locations — some 17,641 square feet of retail and office space in Missoula — with medical marijuana businesses. The income produced from those rentals is $13,782 per month, or $165,385 per year, and more than $20,000 was spent with local contractors to improve the properties for his clients. Smith, who explained that he is neither a medical marijuana patient nor a caregiver, said he is OK with this emerging, albeit sometimes notorious, business sector.
“At this time, it’s such a small part of the much larger local economy — a drop in the bucket,” Smith said. “Still, it’s better than another pinhole. The medical marijuana business has added to my income as a Realtor in a slow housing market and created a few weeks of work for local contractors. But the bigger picture is that most of these caregivers are trying to do things right. They are getting city business licenses, hiring bookkeepers, and each growing facility has two to five employees on the payroll.”
Aaron Evans, a Missoula Web designer, has seen his already-thriving international business grow by 20 percent this past year because of contracts related to medical marijuana.
“I’m pretty busy. I have about 40 medical marijuana websites I’m working on right now, and I’ve definitely seen an uptick in business,” Evans said. “I build websites all over the world and wasn’t really attached to the local economy until this hit.”
Evans is so busy these days that he’s hired several part-time employees to help with marketing, Web development and other in-house projects, and he will probably have to hire more in coming months as Montana’s medical marijuana sector continues to expand and businesses keep hiring his firm, Website Clarity.
“There is definitely a lot of opportunity popping up with this new industry,” Evans said. “I think it’s great, especially during a down economy and in a town like Missoula that’s been hurting with big closures like Smurfit-Stone (Container Corp.) and Macy’s.
“This is one of the bright spots.”
In Billings, Don Crawford said he’s happy to get a piece of the state’s new, thriving industry by insuring dispensaries and marijuana crop growers.
“It is just like any other business. I got involved with it when I saw an opportunity,” Crawford said. “I see this is as an emerging market, and I feel it’s not going away any time soon.
“If anything, it will be become bigger as it becomes more acceptable, and I saw an opportunity to be in on the ground floor.”
To date, medical marijuana insurance represents just 2 percent of Crawford’s business, but he expects that number to climb once the 2011 Montana Legislature tackles the many vague regulations surrounding the state’s medical marijuana law.
“What I find amazing — and rare — about people in this industry is that they are begging for more regulation,” Crawford said. “They want clear laws in place and the Legislature to act and local municipalities to give them direction because the law right now is so vague and they are at a crossroads about what they want to do with their business. But they won’t make a move or expand until they know how things will shake out.”
Up in Kalispell, James Blair is taking a chance that medical marijuana services are here to stay — and will expand.
Blair, who was laid off from his job with a Flathead Valley wholesale distributor and struggling to support his family of five, is opening a custom drip irrigation business to assist marijuana growers. “I saw a demand, and it’s putting me and my partner to work,” Blair said. “It gives me an opportunity to own my own business, work for myself and support my family without government assistance.”
Big Sky entrepreneur Chris Mountjoy shares Blair’s sentiment.
Despite a saturated market in Bozeman, Mountjoy saw an opportunity in Missoula to open a garden supply store called Green Miszoo last fall, which offers a specific inventory targeted at growing plants indoors. Grow lights, plant food, soil and the like can be found in the small shop in the heart of Missoula. His goal isn’t to have a dynasty in the growing business. Rather, he sees it as a relatively safe way to cut his teeth as an entrepreneur and gain the confidence to open other kinds of businesses.
“I’ve got bigger plans,” Mountjoy said, “like opening a snowboard company and building a skateboard fun center. I opened Green Miszoo because I thought it was the right time to get involved with that market and hopefully it will produce a business that will make me feel confident to make moves toward my other goals.”
Because he lives and works in Big Sky, Mountjoy hired Luke Rieker to be his store manager in Missoula. Rieker knows about business. He co-owns the city’s specialty kayak shop, Strongwater.
“This place is busy every day,” Rieker said. “I can’t say for sure if our customers are growing marijuana, because we don’t ask them.
“But we do get a lot of questions about how to grow marijuana,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t you have a computer? All the information you need is there. We are a garden supply store, not marijuana tutors.’ ”