Big High Country

Medical marijuana foments culture war in Montana.

Beau Hodai

Hardin, Mont., is home to this alleged “FEMA concentration camp.“

911 emergency dispatch, Billings, Montana: Billings 911.”

Medical marijuana’s opponents seem to believe that those who do not wish to be exposed to the freedoms of others are entitled to be free from those freedoms.

– Caller: Ah yes, I’d like to report the start of a building fire, please.”

– Dispatch: Shoot, where at?”

– Caller: 2109 Grand. I just drove by it. Looks like it’s been broken into. There’s a fire starting inside the building.”

– Dispatch: Okay, do you know what the name of the building is?”

– Caller: No, I don’t…”

– Dispatch: “… All right, they’re sendin’ someone over there.”

Billings Fire Department personnel responded to this call, made by a local woman on her way to the gym in the pre-dawn hours of Monday, May 10. The call was made about 14 hours before the Billings City Council was set to kick off a meeting anticipated to set restrictions on medical marijuana caregivers within the city’s limits – if not ban them entirely.

Arriving at the scene of the fire, the small storefront of local medical marijuana caregiver Montana Therapeutics, BFD responders noted that the front door had been busted out” and that a fire emanating from a small object – later identified as a liquor bottle – was burning on the floor just inside the store.

Responders also noted the words NOT IN OUR TOWN” spray-painted across the business storefront.

According to the BFD incident report, the fire was extinguished and the crime scene turned over to Billings Police Department, at which time officers informed the firemen that an identical firebombing had taken place at Big Sky Patient Care, another medical marijuana caregiver facility located in Billings, the previous morning. 

Police had responded to a call from the business’s on-site security company at about 5 a.m., reporting that a motion sensor alarm had gone off. As in the case of the Montana Therepeutics attack, the front-door glass had been shattered with a rock and a Molotov cocktail hurled into the reception area. Store security cameras captured the grainy images of two darkly dressed individuals approaching the store, one lighting and throwing the cocktail shortly after the other had completed spray-painting the same four words, NOT IN OUR TOWN,” across the store’s plate-glass windows.

Apparently someone in Billings, perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming city council session, had taken it upon themselves to vote with their matches.

Slide into Gomorrah

In November 2004, 62 percent of Montana voters approved Ballot Initiative 148 (I-148), legalizing the use, production and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes. With this vote, Montana became the 10th state in the union to allow such use of the plant. The law was approved by one of the largest majorities of any state to allow medical marijuana since federal criminalization of the plant in 1937.

In October 2009, Deputy U.S. Attorney General David Ogden issued a memo to all attorneys general offering guidance” for federal prosecutorial discretion in cases involving medical marijuana originating from states where such use is legal. The memo stated in no uncertain terms that marijuana – used for any purpose, medical or otherwise – was still illegal under federal law, but that, given the currently restricted federal budget, the prosecution of those complying with state medical marijuana laws was not to be a priority.

Following the DOJ medical marijuana memo,” the number of medical marijuana patient cardholders in Montana exploded from around 4,000 to an estimated 14,000 to 20,000 by July 2010. The number of medical marijuana caregivers” in the state boomed from 1,400 to about 3,000 during this time, with businesses popping up in strip malls, industrial sectors of towns, and in close proximity to churches and schools. 

The problem with the law is that it provides few restrictions on where marijuana can be grown or distributed, where it can be smoked, how many patients a single medical marijuana caregiver can provide for, or even the types of ailments for which the medicine can be prescribed.

The new gold rush was on.

Reactionary measures

On Monday, May 10, the night of the second arson attack, droves of concerned citizens – both for and against medical marijuana – flooded City Hall, necessitating the use of ancillary conference rooms to hold overflow spectators and speakers, for a meeting which would drag on from 6:30 p.m. to nearly 2 a.m.

The Billings City Council meeting concluded early Tuesday morning with a condemnation of the terrorist acts and a vote of eight to two approving a six-month moratorium on any new medical marijuana businesses within the city limits.

Billings was not, however, the first city in Montana to react to so-called medical marijuana violence” with a moratorium.

On April 17, police in Kalispell, responding to an anonymous tip, found the body of Wesley Collins, dumped in the woods south of town. According to police, Collins had been beaten to death, most likely during a botched robbery at his apartment five days prior. Collins was a medical marijuana patient, and three small marijuana plants he was cultivating for medical use were stolen during the robbery – a connection not lost on Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset or the local media, which quickly dubbed Collins’ death a medical marijuana murder.”

A regular session of the Kalispell City Council was coming up two days later. Robert Cates, an area caregiver, addressed the council: Wesley Collins was my very good friend and patient. This was not about three pot plants, this was about pain medicine. He had a problem with Xanax.”

While Chief Nasset has been more than happy to hang the onus of Collins’ murder on the specter of medical marijuana, he is very aware that prescription narcotics, along with money and other property, were a prime focus of the robbery. Nonetheless, Nasset says that if Collins’ friends knew he had a drug problem, they should have reported it to the police. Because they failed to do so, Nasset says, these friends are not credible.

Despite an overwhelming show of support from caregivers, patients – some of whom had moved to Montana for the express purpose of receiving medical marijuana – and other members of the community, the Kalispell council voted seven to one to impose a city-wide ban on medical marijuana businesses. 

To date, moratoriums and restrictions ranging in both severity and duration are in place in several Montana municipalities, including Cascade, Whitefish, Deer Lodge, Belgrade, Manhattan and Bozeman.

Christ the Carpetbagger

Big hotels. Big conference rooms. Big lines. Big jars of pot. These are the images rattled off by a seemingly endless stream of tearful mothers, red-faced council members, exasperated legislators and chagrined caregivers at meeting after meeting over the past year. These are the so-called cannabis caravans.”

Jason Christ, founder and owner of the Montana Caregivers Network (MCN), is the man behind these carnivalesque happenings. His caravan has rolled from town to town across the state, signing up hundreds to well in excess of 1,000 medical marijuana patients” over the course of a single weekend at $150 per card. The conferences with physicians willing to issue referrals for medical marijuana are often conducted over the telephone with no physical interaction and limited doctor-patient dialogue.

In one instance, a doctor in Whitefish, Mont., was fined $2,000 by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for unprofessional conduct, having written referrals to 150 patients in less than 15 hours during one of these marathon sessions.

Caregivers in Montana seeking to legitimize marijuana as a viable medicine say that Christ, with his ever-present two-foot pipe (which he once proudly toked on the steps of the state capitol) is the living example of everything the right-wing opposition needs in order to tear the whole shebang down.

Deliver us from the freedoms of others

Tom Daubert, a caregiver and director of Patients and Families United, the medical marijuana advocacy group that spearheaded the 2004 I-148 campaign, says most of the opposition in the state has come from conservative, so-called right-wing church groups” that are overreacting to flaws in the present law and whose views stem from over 70 years of anti-marijuana propaganda – drug war mythology,” as Daubert calls it.

Additionally, the controversy – ignited by those caregivers who have opened facilities near schools or who have paraded across the state in cannabis caravans” – has been fueled by sensationalist press coverage of the Billings fire bombings and the Collins murder.

Three of the state’s top papers have hammered incessantly on the subject of medical marijuana violence.” The Missoulian (the paper that spawned headlines such as, Suspects say they bludgeoned man to death for his marijuana and money”), the Helena Independent Record and the Billings Gazette (the paper that, on the day following the second fire bombing, posted on its website a complete list of all medical marijuana caregiver facilities in the city along with their addresses and names of owners), all have a demonstrably rightist bent. The papers are owned by Lee Enterprises, Inc., a corporation whose board members and top executives have donated generously to the Republican National Committee during the past two decades.

Daubert’s assertion that a certain conservative Christian element is behind efforts to repeal the law is also correct.

David Lewis (not to be confused with Montana State Senator David Lewis (R-Helena)) is the treasurer and spokesman for Safe Communities Safe Kids, a group whose presence in city hall meetings prior to the enactment of the Billings moratorium was very visible, and which in late May began a petition campaign to place an initiative repealing Montana’s medical marijuana law on the ballot in November. The campaign failed – although the group was able to gather more than 15,000 signatures in one week – but Lewis says the group is just beginning its efforts to re-criminalize all aspects of marijuana use in Montana. 

While Safe Communities Safe Kids does not bill itself as a faith-based group, the sole entity that signed on to support their ballot initiative was the Montana Family Foundation, a right-wing Christian group with ties to Focus on the Family and the Alliance Defense Fund.

Lewis says Montanans were the victims of a rope-a-dope” scheme in 2004, pointing out that the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based marijuana advocacy group, financed the I-148 campaign almost single-handedly.

Speaking before the Billings City Council, Lewis said Montana is turning into Gomorrah,” with, according to him, at least three medical marijuana facilities sprouting up around nearly every single institution of elementary learning” in Billings.

And it was intentional,” he said. We have a middle school here, out on the main street – not a couple hundred yards from it, an entity called Magic Meds.’ And it has psychedelic imagery on the sign and stuff like that … I mean, this is as close to Joe Camel as you can get.”

When asked if the sheer numbers of those signing up to provide or receive medical marijuana, coupled with the large majority of voters who passed the initiative into law in 2004, might indicate an overwhelming support for a partial, if not all out legalization of marijuana in the state, Lewis waxed philosophical. The situation medical marijuana opponents find themselves in today, according to Lewis, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is reminiscent of a theoretical scenario he once laid out before a group of students in a class on government he taught at a Mormon seminary. The moral of the exercise: while others are entitled to their freedoms, those who do not wish to be exposed to the freedoms of others are entitled to be free of those freedoms.

Lewis asked his students at the Mormon seminary what laws they would pass if they were starting a city. One young lady said that she would outlaw cursing, says Lewis. And a young man kind of immediately jumped on that one with both feet and said, Ah, that’s against the right of free speech.’ “

Lewis continues: The point is, at the end of the class, one young lady piped up … I don’t know if it’s legal or not to outlaw cursing,’ she said. But I’d want to live there.’ “

To Lewis, this response is emblematic of what the United States is going through today. We are seeing a kind of dividing; united we stand, divided we fall,” he says. And I think that division is becoming greater … The definition of what our communities are like, the definition of what … our nation is like, is in a state of revision.” 

Beau Hodai, a former In These Times Staff Writer, is the founder of DBA Press (dba​press​.com), an online news publication and source materials archive.
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