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Inside the Montana Medical Marijuana Mess: One Patient’s Story

Today I read that Initiative 182 (I-182), Montana’s medical marijuana initiative version 2.0, had officially qualified for the November ballot. The news sent a rush of relief through my body. I’d heard that enough signatures had been gathered back in June, but there had been no news since then.

Half the states in the U.S. now have adopted medical cannabis legalization, but that number — 25 states — can be deceptive. In Montana, where I live, the term “medically legal” has lately seemed like a not-very-funny joke. 

In fact, the state’s medical marijuana system was eviscerated by the Montana Supreme Court, which in February upheld legislation from 2011 mandating that dispensaries could only serve a maximum of three patients each. In the months between the high court’s decision and the Aug. 31 cutoff date, the medical cannabis community in Montana has been thrown into a state of shock and frenzy.

That court decision wasn’t just a theoretical setback for the legalization movement. It had real consequences for Montana’s 13,000 medical marijuana patients (down from nearly 30,000 back in 2011, before the original legislation was passed). I know because I’m one of them. 

Each of those 13,000 patients is now scrambling to find access to their medicine. Countless others are wondering if they’re even eligible to receive cannabinoid relief. It’s a confusing and sometimes scary situation, given the weighty hand of the law lingering over us all. It hits everybody differently. It hit me in perhaps the strangest way possible, because after years of suffering I finally decided to pluck up my courage and ask for a medical marijuana recommendation — on the very day the state Supreme Court voted to shut down the system. Here’s my story. 

Dolencias para las que se autoriza la marihuana medicinal por estado

From NYC to the Urban Jungle of Missoula 

In late 2015 I moved to Montana from New York City, leaving behind the hustle of the metropolis along with a steady 9-to-5 job. Over the first few months, I found myself fitting right in to Missoula’s downtempo arts and culture scene. But the new environs didn’t agree with my health. Nights of insomnia kicked up my anxiety levels and dramatically increased my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) pain. 

The quiet of Montana couldn’t quell my sleeplessness. When insomnia gave rise to panic, joint swelling, and pain, it finally dawned on me — at 4:30 a.m. on Feb. 25 — that Montana voters had legalized medical marijuana in 2004. 

In my new home, it’s legal for card-carrying patients to possess one ounce of usable marijuana. In other words, I could legally obtain medication that could help me sleep without causing drug dependence. 

All I needed was a medical marijuana card. 

Cannabis and Arthritis

Montana’s laws are fairly strict when it comes to doling them out. But my wrists and arms clearly display the havoc that RA has wreaked upon my body. The circles under my eyes were increasing in darkness and size. I was miserable, and I hoped a doctor would agree to help.

Later that morning, after the sun had risen, I I walked downtown to a dispensary in downtown Missoula, a storefront on Main Street. Their website assured me that their staff offered support to would-be patients needing a card. As I crossed the threshold, I was already a little sweaty for a February afternoon. I’d never been to a medical cannabis dispensary, and I was anxious. 

Inside, the place reminded me of a spa: quiet music, soft lighting, and comfortable seating. A large menu of cannabis strains hung on the wall behind an empty desk. A young woman sat on a couch nearby, tapping at her smartphone while she waited to be served. I settled into a chair with the prospect of a good night’s sleep hovering behind my eyes. 

After a few minutes, a young woman entered the room apologizing. 

“My boss was on the phone,” she told us.

“Things are confusing right now. People are freaking out, and we needed to develop a game plan for the next few days.”

What was she talking about? 

Apparently, ten minutes before I’d walked into the dispensary, the Montana Supreme Court had handed down a devastating ruling. The court declared that a 2011 law — which had been held up by technicalities for five years — was legal and would soon be enforced. And it would eviscerate the medical cannabis system in Montana. 

Montana Dispensaries Face Shutdown Today, Patients Unsure Where to Turn

Nobody knew when the law would take effect, the staffer told us, but when it did, the dispensary system would be shut down. The law mandated that cannabis providers in the state would be restricted to three clients each. Doctors recommending cannabis treatment to more than 25 patients a year would trigger an automatic formal review, at their own expense, and would likely lose their licenses. Patients would be held to a much higher standard of “debilitating pain” than they had been before, and most would be left without dispensary access. 

And me? I lost the chance to take back control of my mental and physical health.

On my way out the door, I grabbed a sheet of paper with some phone numbers and websites on it — information about doctors who worked with medical marijuana patients. But, the desk attendant sighed, they probably couldn’t help me now. Most clinics were shuttered until more information about the ruling became available. I couldn’t blame them for not prioritizing me: I wasn’t even in the system yet, and the system was crumbling all around me. 

Initiative 182: A New Hope  

For the next five months, I watched my fellow Montanans try to make sense of the ruling. My own ability to sleep continued to deteriorate, along with my physical health. I tried habit-forming pharmaceuticals, meditation, yoga, a restricted diet, and boring podcasts in bed. Nothing provided more than week or two of relief before the insomnia came crashing back.

Dolencias para las que se autoriza la marihuana medicinal por estado

The Montana Supreme Court decided that the new law would go into effect on August 31, ostensibly giving providers and patients some time to figure out their game plans. But the plan for most dispensaries is to shut down when the ruling goes into effect, and even sooner for some. The state recently dropped the price of an MMJ card from $75 to $5, but a card without a provider isn’t worth much, no matter the price. 

A few weeks after my initial disastrous visit, I returned to the dispensary. The storefront was still there, and the woman behind the desk was having a much better day.  She told me about Initiative 182, a new campaign to restart a real medical marijuana system in Montana. “We’re hoping there will be only a two- to three-month shutdown between August and November,” she told me.

“If I-182 passes, we’ll be able to open back up the next day, on Nov. 8. And I think we will. I think Montana is ready for this.”

She was happy to provide me with information on upcoming medical clinics in the Missoula area at which I could see a doctor who would review my medical history and decide whether I’m eligible for a medical marijuana card. The future was uncertain, but as my aching joints and exhausted eyes reminded me — it was worth a try. 

I signed the I-182 petition that day, and encouraged others to do the same. So when the news this morning told me that cannabis advocates had gathered the required 26,668 verified signatures, I was proud to know that mine was among them. And I began girding myself for the long campaign ahead. 

MMJ Backers Seek Further Delay of Montana Court Decision