The state of Montana looks to phasing themselves out of the medical marijuana industry over the past year. Montana has seen a drastic drop in medical marijuana card holders from over 30,000 to just above 10,000 now. In addition the number of medical marijuana dispensaries has seen a large decrease goign from nearly 5,000 statewide, to just under 400 now. The residents seem to be pleased that medical marijuana billboards and signs will no longer be cluttering up their towns.
The city now has significantly fewer medical marijuana businesses than it did at the beginning of the year, 38 compared to 63, according to the city of Missoula's Business Licensing Office.
State Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who successfully sponsored a law to restrict such businesses, said he'd love to take credit for the change in landscape.
But, he said, "I think it's largely due to federal law enforcement."
In March and November, federal agents raided medical marijuana businesses around the state, including in Missoula and the Flathead. Despite Montana's voter-approved legalization of the medical use of cannabis, marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Some of those targeted by the raids already have pleaded guilty to federal drug charges whose penalties carry stiff prison sentences and hefty fines.
"I think the threat of significant jail time brought a sense of reality to a lot of people who were engaged in the operation," Essmann said.
One person's reality is another's fear.
The highly publicized raids had a chilling effect on medical marijuana businesses and their clients, said John Masterson, who heads Montana's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
"We've got entrepreneurs who were, by all accounts I'm aware of, complying with state law. They just were successful business people who were raided by, basically, federal law enforcement soldiers in body armor with gas masks and submachine guns," he said. "Many or maybe all who were raided were acting in good faith and believed they were in compliance with state law."
That fear also applies not only to entrepreneurs but to consumers as well, he said. The number of people with state-approved medical marijuana cards dropped from a high of 30,036 in June to 10,236 last month - just about where it was 18 months ago.
The number of providers plummeted even more sharply, from a high of 4,848 in March to 383 last month.
That's a lightning-fast turnaround from the days when it seemed as though another medical marijuana business opened weekly in Missoula, and the number of cardholders rose by more than 1,000 people each month.
"I've talked to a lot of voters in my district who were OK with looking the other way if it helped an elderly person with a severe terminal situation," Essmann said. "But they were not happy with the situation as it had developed."
Even the most ardent supporters of medical cannabis had problems with some of that growth.
"At this time last year, just prior to the Legislature convening, there were many of us in the movement who were concerned with some of the brash and insensitive and arguably inappropriate commercial activities by some operators," Masterson said. "Our Montana culture was not ready to so suddenly have billboards and signage, and that provoked a response."
He didn't mention anyone by name but one Missoula resident, Jason Christ, became infamous for Internet "tele-clinics" and traveling "cannabis caravans" where physicians provided medical marijuana recommendations for hundreds of people in a few hours.
Although Christ's business continued staging one-day clinics around the state, he closed his prominent location at Orange and Front streets months ago and, more recently, some of his websites have vanished from the Internet. These days, Christ is embroiled in a series of lawsuits and countersuits - mostly with former business associates - and is scheduled to go to trial in April in a felony intimidation case.
Among the suits filed by Christ, acting as his own attorney, is one challenging the new law as unconstitutional.
Months ago, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association - which formed in response to the new law - filed its own legal challenge, resulting in an injunction on some of its most stringent provisions.
The state has appealed part of that ruling and the Cannabis Industry Association said it will counter that appeal.
Opponents of the new law also have collected enough signatures to place a repeal of Essmann's measure on the 2012 ballot.
"I'm optimistic that the attempt to repeal what the Legislature did will fail," said Essmann, citing a Montana State University-Billings poll released in October that showed 62 percent of those queried supported his measure's restrictions.
"I don't think most Montanans want to return to the Wild West situation," he said. "I know that the people in my home community are happy that the storefronts are no longer present and the billboards are not actively promoting the product and sending messages to the youth of the community."
These days, Essmann is busier with his campaign for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination than medical marijuana questions. Despite the issue's high profile - medical marijuana was named the No. 1 news story of 2011 by the Associated Press' annual member poll - Essmann said it rarely arises on the campaign trail.
"Issue No. 1 will be the economy and jobs," he said. "Issue No. 2 will be the economy and jobs. Issue No. 3 will be the economy and jobs."
For Masterson, of course, it remains Issue No. 1.
"As I look forward, it's clear we need to find some sort of middle ground," he said. "The voters of Montana generally believe that no one should face criminal penalties for responsible adult use of cannabis, whether to alleviate symptoms of some malady or relax after a hard day's work."
Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, [email protected], or CopsAndCourts.com.