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Janice Williamson will lose two of her toes on Monday.

The 57-year-old Manhattan woman has had rheumatoid arthritis for 34 years. It affects her entire body. Her hands are knotted, and the pain in her feet is such that she had surgery in June just so she could walk. But after the procedure, the necessary blood didn’t reach two of her toes.

Six years ago, Williamson was prescribed medical marijuana. She met with a provider that grows marijuana, KannaKare Health Services in Bozeman, and found that the marijuana eased her pain, allowing her to sleep through the night.

But last month, a letter from the state said she must become her own provider.

“I’m not educated enough to do that,” she said. “Oh my gosh, it’s so sophisticated and we don’t have a very big house.”

Williamson and thousands of patients and their providers are waiting to see what happens to a ballot measure headed to voters in November designated I-182, which would save Montana’s dying medical marijuana industry.

Election Day is 37 days away. But Montana’s journey to this vote is rooted in 2011, when state lawmakers responded to a spike in medical marijuana prescriptions by passing a bill that repealed the 2004 voter-approved medical marijuana program. Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the bill. However, he allowed another bill, SB 423, known as “repeal-lite,” to become law without his signature.

Then things got messy.

A lawsuit against the new law was filed immediately. But the number of medical marijuana patients began to drop like a rock – from 30,000 to fewer than 10,000.

After five years in the court system, the Legislature’s most drastic restrictions on the program were allowed to go into effect last month.

The full implementation of the 2011 law – allowing providers like KannaKare owner Misty Carey to have just three patients – has left just 880 of 12,780 patients with medical marijuana prescriptions access to their medicine through third-party growers, according to a September report from the state’s health department.

Carey’s client list before the Montana Supreme Court allowed the law to go into effect was 300. Carey chose to keep two of her employees as patients so, “We have no sales,” she said. It cost her $80,000 in sales last month, and KannaKare’s financial projections show a complete shutdown on Nov. 15, unless voters say yes.

The medicinal cannabis industry is wracked with anxiety, she said, but it’s her patients that are panicking. The wealthy are stockpiling. Those of lesser means, Carey knows, are breaking the law.

“The black market is really benefiting,” she said.

Legally grown medical marijuana in Oregon and Washington, she said, is being illegally transported and sold to patients in Montana.

The campaign to qualify the ballot measure, Montanans Citizens for I-182, is being funded by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, the professional growers.

They needed to collect 24,175 valid signatures from at least 34 legislative house districts before June 17.

The industry association, through the ballot committee, hired M+R Strategic Services, a national firm with an office in Missoula, which quickly spent $6,000 polling voters and thousands more hiring staff for the signature gathering. By the deadline, the state certified 27,550 signatures, and it qualified.

The results of the poll have not been made public, but Carey, a member of the industry association, said it showed that the prospects of passing a medical marijuana initiative were good, but support for full legalization was below 50 percent. This, she said, explains the lack of support from the industry for a full legalization campaign. Launched by Anthony Varriano, a sports reporter in Glendive, the full legalization campaign known as Cycling for Sensible Drug Policy submitted 9,750 signatures, failing to meet the state’s threshold.

But even medical marijuana has garnered a vocal opposition. Steve Zabawa, a Billings businessman with several car dealerships, founded and financed Safe Montana, a ballot committee that is against state-based medical marijuana programs.

Zabawa’s group came close but ultimately failed to qualify a competing ballot measure that would have made all medical marijuana use in Montana illegal so long as it was banned federally.

Last month, Montanans Citizens for I-182′s treasurer, Bozeman City Commissioner Jeff Krauss, filed a campaign practices complaint against Safe Montana. It alleges that Safe Montana is “engaging in a pattern of deceptive actions intended to obscure from the public eye the financing of their activity opposing I-182.” The I-182 campaign claims Safe Montana contracted for billboards erected across the state without disclosing the costs as required.

And on Tuesday, Safe Montana filed a counter-complaint alleging that the I-182 ballot committee was funded by illegal drug money. No decision has yet been issued on that complaint. The state’s commissioner of political practices is expected to make a ruling on the first complaint this week.

Zabawa also traveled to Bozeman last week to present his argument at the Emerson Center, where a 2011 Montana PBS documentary on medical marijuana use in the state was screened. About 100 people attended; some were patients and providers, and the air of the event smelled supportive of the ballot measure, which seems to be representative of the broader public opinion.

According to the U.S. National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, marijuana use among adults has grown from 10.4 percent to 13.3 percent of the total U.S. population from 2002 to 2014. And the number of people who think that smoking marijuana once or twice a week is harmful has dropped from 50.4 percent to 33.3 percent over the same period.

After the film, Zabawa took the stage.

Speaking calmly and clearly, Zabawa stressed that Safe Montana is against all recreational marijuana use but for medical use, provided it’s OK’d federally. He said that he had, himself, voted to approve medical marijuana in Montana’s 2004 Election.

However, he said while holding up a bottle of aspirin, he now believes that medical marijuana must go through the Federal Drug Administration’s review process. And it should be distributed by a trained pharmacist and come with a warning label like aspirin does, he said.

“That’s the problem with the medical marijuana green card system that we’re adamantly opposed to,” Zabawa said. “We think it’s a terrible model to distribute medicine safely to our loved ones.”

To make the changes at the federal level, he urged the audience to contact Montana’s congressional delegation and ask that marijuana be moved off the banned for medicine schedule I list and lowered to the schedule II classification, high potential for abuse.

Zabawa also criticized proponents of the 2016 ballot measure for taking a different path, saying that it showed their true desire: full legalization, medical and recreational.

“The problem with (the I-182 campaign) is they don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. They don’t know if they want to be legalizing marijuana or if they want to be medical marijuana. If they wanted medical marijuana they would have a prescription, they would have clinical training, they would do all these different things that would bring up the integrity of what you’re getting in the system.”

A few people in the crowd began to shout him down.

Kate Cholewa, a spokesperson for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, took the stage to rebut Zabawa, explaining what the group had drafted into the 2016 initiative.

Included in the initiative was language to:

“Steve likes to say he’s for medical marijuana,” Cholewa said. “But when you listen to what he says, it’s clear what he is in favor of, giving pharmaceutical companies exclusive rights to the healing properties of this plant and to make synthetic cannabinoids and isolates.

“He often says he supports medical marijuana but everything he has done is to end the medical marijuana program. This is his third effort at an initiative.”

In closing, Cholewa reiterated a frequent grievance of medical marijuana proponents: The 2004 ballot measure was inadequate; it had not created a regulatory regime to prevent abuses. But instead of fixing the program, the state Legislature killed it.

“There were bad actors, but there were a lot of people trying to get a job done with a statute inadequate to get that job done,” Cholewa said. “They tried in 2007 to do something with this law, in 2009 they did a display in the (Capitol) rotunda to try to draw attention and nothing happened. Then 2011, we need something to happen. What do (lawmakers) do? They wipe the thing out. We’re dealing with those consequences now. I-182 restores the program.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Medical Marijuana Proponents Hoping Ballot Measure Will Save Dying Industry
Author: Troy Carter
Contact: 406-587-4491
Photo Credit: Troy Carter
Website: Bozeman Daily Chronicle