MISSOULA — With controversy swirling around Montana’s medical marijuana industry, Gov. Brian Schweitzer paid his first visit to a medical marijuana clinic on Thursday, where he made clear both his continued support for a legally sanctioned medical marijuana industry and his belief that new legislation governing the industry is imminent and necessary.
“I think it’s unrealistic to say to legitimate medical patients that have found benefit from medical marijuana that you can no longer access this,” said Schweitzer. “I think we need to tighten up the laws. The business has gotten out ahead of the regulatory environment, and we need to build some boundaries.”
In a 45-minute meeting with Rick Rosio, president and CEO of Missoula’s Montana Pain Management, the governor received a crash course in the challenges facing professional medical marijuana caregivers in Montana. Rosio, who started his Missoula-based growing operation and caregiver business in December 2008, said the lack of regulation and standardized business practices hurts his business as much as it worries people who are unfamiliar with the applications and benefits of medical marijuana.
“If I sold hot dogs, I could go down and get a line of credit” from a commercial lender, Rosio said. “With the cash flow I have, we could show the ability to generate tremendous revenue. But none of the financial institutions will work with us on a credit line because they don’t understand the business.
“I pay taxes, I pay FICA, I do everything every other business does, and I’ll tell you what, I’m in the hole a half a million bucks.”
Rosio described his business as a growing, legitimate operation, pointing to its acquisition by Cannabis Science Inc., a publicly traded company based in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this week. “We are the first cannabis clinic to be owned by a publicly traded company in order to develop this model and to provide more jobs in Montana,” Rosio said. “We don’t hide anything. Our books are all open here.”
Schweitzer, who earned college degrees in agronomy and soil science and spent years as a rancher in Whitefish, said he was impressed by the sophistication of Rosio’s operation. He said he believed the primary issue facing the medical marijuana industry in Montana today is “an image problem” — made notably worse in recent months by scattered cases of violence involving registered medical marijuana caregivers in the state.
Schweitzer even admitted that he harbored his own preconceived — and not entirely charitable — notions of what Rosio’s business would look like before his visit.
Schweitzer and Rosio discussed several of the ideas being floated around the state to tighten regulation of the industry. Both agreed that the number of independent, commercial growers should be limited, and that taxation of medical marijuana was likely necessary in order to pay for increased regulation.
“If we have some 1,400 or 4,000 of these providers, it’s impossible for the state of Montana to monitor the growing and the distribution,” Schweitzer said. “Maybe we need to severely limit the number of people who have grow operations. Also, limit the number of providers, in much the same way as we limit the number of lawyers we have, we limit the number of doctors we have, we limit the number of pharmacists we have, and we need to inspect these operations to make sure they’re growing only what they need for their patients and they’re supplying marijuana only for their patients.”
Rosio said caregivers — particularly smaller operators — and patients who choose to grow their own medical marijuana struggle to remain within the letter of the law, given the strict limits on the number of plants and amount of processed marijuana allowed for each registered medical marijuana patient.
“The mom-and-pops who manufacture for themselves, who are taking care of themselves, have a great difficulty staying legal,” Rosio said. “We need (to legalize) caregiver-to-caregiver transfers to be able to provide overages to other licensed caregivers.”
Schweitzer called Thursday’s visit a learning experience — though he was careful to keep an arm’s distance from Montana Pain Management’s products.
“I’m a little uncomfortable around all of this,” Schweitzer said as Rosio showed him a tray of processed medical marijuana, adding a note of caution to the first dog at his side: “Don’t eat anything, Jag.”