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Medical marijuana’s popularity catches many off-guard

Medical marijuana’s popularity catches many off-guard

Counties, cities, lawmakers, tribes rush to manage industry

HELENA — Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Commissioner Robert Pierce was among the 62 percent of Montanans who voted to legalize marijuana for medical purposes six years ago.

“It was compassion,” Pierce said.

But then something showed up in his town that prompted Pierce to take another vote on the issue, this time directing his city and county to withdraw from most parts of the law:

A giant marijuana leaf painted on the storefront of a would-be medical marijuana establishment set up across the street from the Anaconda Dairy Queen.

“And that’s wrong, in my opinion,” Pierce said.

Pierce and his commission, who voted in late May on a six-month moratorium for all growing and selling of marijuana in the county, is hardly alone. As the medical marijuana industry has blossomed in Montana, county governments, lawmakers, tribal councils and others have grappled with what to do about the trend.

In Kalispell and Billings, the concern is inflamed by violence and vandalism connected to medical marijuana. But in other parts of state, the concerns are more mundane, focusing on zoning, business licensure and electrical standards for grow houses.

The burgeoning industry has surprised even medical marijuana’s strongest supporters, including Tom Daubert, of Helena, the man behind the successful 2004 initiative that legalized medicinal pot. Daubert says he fully supports state efforts to more tightly regulate the industry. He said what’s happened to marijuana in recent months is not what he envisioned.

Daubert is part of a co-op of growers in Helena. Their offices are discreet and unmarked, nothing like the gaily painted storefronts across the state that so irritate law enforcement and the general public. Those kinds of displays, Daubert said, are “nails in the coffin of this law.”

Indeed, at least one lawmaker, Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, has proposed nailing up the whole thing: repealing the law and starting over.

“I don’t think (voters) knew the pig they were buying in the poke,” he said in a recent interview.

Voters may also get another crack at the issue. A quickly formed group has organized to put repealing the law back on the ballot this fall, although organizers have only weeks to collect 25,000  signatures from voters.

The numbers tell part of the story. If a Montanan has a doctor’s prescription for a traditional drug, he or she has just more than 1,000 licensed pharmacists to choose from. But if you’ve got a doctor’s card for medical marijuana, there are more than 2,700 licensed “caregivers,” and the regulations and educational requirements for caregivers is nothing compared with the degree and professional licensure requirements of a traditional pharmacist.

Shockley said it’s just that kind of wide-open nature to medical marijuana that needs changing. From growing to distributing, the state has few regulations on the industry, and laying the groundwork for a functional medical marijuana program will require more than “just tweaking,” he said.

The Legislature doesn’t meet for another six months, meaning any statewide change is not imminent. Many Montana cities and towns have stepped in to fill that void.

Take a look:

After two medical marijuana storefronts were firebombed, the Billings City Council voted 8-2 for a six-month moratorium on granting business licenses to any new medical marijuana caregivers.

Kalispell also instituted such a ban after a medical marijuana grower there was beaten to death.

The tribal council of the Salish and Kootenai Confederated tribes voted last month to opt out of the state medical marijuana law entirely, meaning tribal members and members of recognized tribes within the Flathead Reservation are forbidden from growing, selling or using medical marijuana.

The city of Deer Lodge has banned new medical marijuana businesses, and Anaconda-Deer Lodge adopted a similar ban.

The buzz is so hot among local governments reacting to medical marijuana that the state legislative branch has written a memo for local governments to refer to on how to regulate and zone for the industry.

Mark Sweeney, another Anaconda-Deer Lodge commissioner, was the only person to vote against that county’s ban. He said the county has real concerns about where growing operations take place, what sorts of electrical standards should be in place and where storefronts can be located and had particular concerns about growing operations in residential parts of the smelting town, where old houses sit very close to one another.

“It a citizen’s initiative without a lot of direction,” he said.

Sweeney said the issue has been a real education for the commission, which mostly deals with paving roads and hallmarks of municipal regulation. Pot was not on its radar.

“It’s a can of worms,” Sweeney said.

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