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More big changes coming for Montana’s medical marijuana providers

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Voters approved Initiative 182 in November which loosened restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana program. (MTN News photo) Voters approved Initiative 182 in November which loosened restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana program. (MTN News photo)
Heirloom Remeides in located on Highway 93 South near Victor. (MTN News photo) Heirloom Remeides in located on Highway 93 South near Victor. (MTN News photo)
Owner Tayln Lang has been involved with the industry for almost a decade, managing dispensaries in Missoula until they shut down in 2011. (MTN News photo) Owner Tayln Lang has been involved with the industry for almost a decade, managing dispensaries in Missoula until they shut down in 2011. (MTN News photo)
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Heirloom Remedies sits just off U.S. Highway 93 South in Ravalli County near Victor. The new business recently held its grand opening – complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The shop is one of the first medical marijuana dispensaries to open in Montana after voters approved Initiative 182 in November which loosened restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana program.

Owner Tayln Lang has been involved with the industry for almost a decade, managing dispensaries in Missoula until they shut down in 2011. For the last two years, he’s delivered medical marijuana directly to patients’ homes.

“Now, with the new law passing, I felt that it was time to do a storefront,” said Lang whose store will sell a variety of marijuana strains, along with edibles – food items that contain marijuana – and other marijuana derivatives.

Lang is also operating an on-site growing facility, with high-efficiency air filters and lamps intended to mimic sunlight. At full capacity, it could produce enough marijuana to serve 150 to 200 patients.

But Lang is operating more than just a dispensary, the building also includes a shop featuring made-in-Montana gifts and it will eventually host yoga classes and a masseuse.

Lang calls Heirloom a “holistic health destination.”

“Medical marijuana has had such a stigma associated with it for so many years,” he said. “I wanted this place to be a place your very conservative grandmother could walk in and feel comfortable.”

Medical marijuana providers like Lang have had to deal with a series of dramatic regulatory changes over the last year. Last August, after a long legal battle, a 2011 provision limiting each provider to serving just three patients took effect leaving more than 8,000 patients without providers.

I-182 repealed the three-patient limit, along with the requirement that patients show “objective proof” of their conditions to receive a medical marijuana card.

The Montana Legislature passed another major reform last month with Senate Bill 333, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Caferro (D-Helena).

The measure would require that all medical marijuana providers have their products tested by licensed laboratories before they’re sold. The labs would test the potency of each product as well as checking for any contaminants.

Providers with 10 or fewer patients would be exempt from testing requirements until 2020. The bill also requires the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to start work on a new system to track all marijuana grown for the medical program, from the time it’s planted to the time it’s sold.

Supporters of SB 333 say the changes will make the medical marijuana program safer, more functional and more transparent.

“We know how many cows we have in Montana; we know how much milk is produced,” said Kate Cholewa, government relations consultant for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association.

“Knowing how much cannabis is being produced in the medical marijuana program and where it is and what form it’s in – this is normal information for us to have," she told MTN News.

Some of the provisions in SB 333 have drawn criticism from some medical marijuana advocates.

The bill would limit the number of marijuana plants patients can keep for personal use. Cardholders who get their marijuana from a provider wouldn’t be able to have any live plants. It will also require medical marijuana cards to include photo identification.

One of the biggest changes is the addition of a tax on providers’ gross sales starting this July. The money would be used to implement the new regulations on the medical marijuana program.

The tax, collected quarterly, will be 4% of sales for the first year and 2% after that. Critics say this is essentially an indirect tax on patients’ medicine, but some providers -- including Lang -- say it’s reasonable for them to help pay for the new systems.

“If that provider decides to pass that cost down to the patient, then it’s up to them,” said Lang. “I am not going to do that.”

Gov. Steve Bullock has not yet taken action on SB 333. If he signs it, most of its provisions will take effect immediately.

Many of the larger changes – including testing, the tracking system, and photo ID – won’t become effective until Apr. 30, 2018, or until DPHHS determines it’s ready to enforce them, whichever comes first.

Montana voters and lawmakers have now weighed in on the medical marijuana program, but it’s not clear yet how the federal government under President Trump will respond.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a prominent opponent of marijuana use. He was quoted saying medical marijuana has been “hyped, maybe too much.”

Supporters of SB 333 believe the new regulations included in the bill will help Montana avoid any trouble with the federal government.

Lang says the Justice Department might increase enforcement against legal recreational marijuana, but he’s not worried about a federal crackdown on his business.

“I don’t believe that the administration would go after any sick people or providers of medical marijuana,” he said.

Congress may also have given programs like Montana’s a reprieve. When lawmakers recently passed a bill to fund the government through September, they extended a provision that blocks the Justice Department from spending money to go after medical marijuana in states that have legalized it.

For now, dispensaries like Heirloom Remedies are likely to make medical marijuana more visible in Montana. Supporters of the program say that could also make it more acceptable.

“As more people become aware of the value of medical marijuana and what it is doing for maybe a family member or a friend or a neighbor, I think as that awareness grows, that’s really what makes the acceptance grow,” said Cholewa.

Montana currently has more than 14,000 registered medical marijuana cardholders, up from around 7,500 in November before I-182 was approved. Nearly 600 medical marijuana providers are registered in the state.

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