After a Supreme Court Ruling, Patients and Providers in Montana Have Much to Lose
The first time I call Noni Sparks, she isn’t feeling well enough to come to the phone. Evenings are bad for her, her husband Joseph explains, and it would be best to call back in the morning, when the symptoms from her multiple sclerosis and migraines aren’t as strong. The pain from one tends to overlap with the other, and it’s hard for her to suppress it all long enough to hold a conversation.
Before Noni was diagnosed with the disease in 2007, she was, as Joseph describes, a domestic goddess, homeschooling the kids and taking care of the house. Afterward, she spent years as what she calls a “guinea pig.” Her doctors put her on synthetic medications to ease her symptoms, which in turn, created new ones for Noni to deal with.
Noni found little relief until she was prescribed medicinal marijuana. Since then, she has worked with her providers at Lionheart Caregiving in Bozeman, Montana, to find the exact strains and dosages that work best for her. She prefers indicas, like Silvertip and Black Cherry Cheesecake. For Noni, they work more like sativas, giving her enough energy to function as much like a healthy human being as possible.
“I know that a lot of people don’t think of us as patients, but we’re going in there for medication,” she says. ”I’m not just sitting around getting baked when I do this.”
But the Sparks live in Montana. With a number of states moving ever closer toward recreational legalization, the Treasure State is moving backwards instead. In a 6-to-1 decision on Feb. 25, the Montana Supreme Court voted to uphold a state law that will severely cripple the local medical cannabis industry. Flathead’s CBS station reports that the justices confirmed a number of oppressive restrictions to cannabis access, calling it a “rational response” to a drug crisis that some say developed there since medical marijuana was legalized in 2004. Unless delays are implemented, patients like Noni will no longer be able to buy the medicine they’ve been allowed to for more than a decade.
“I’m 43 years old, so I come from a generation that’s right there in the thick of things with ‘drugs are bad, go drug free,’ McGruff the Crime Dog,” she says. “I remember marijuana being the gateway drug. I call extreme bullshit on that… I don’t like feeling like I’m a criminal. And that’s one of the biggest things that I feel like I’m going to be. I don’t want this taken from me.”
In 2004, more than 60 percent of voters in Montana approved a medical marijuana initiative, ushering in new options for residents suffering from physical and mental illnesses. When the Justice Department loosened its control over the country’s growing cannabis industry in 2009, the number of patients soared. By 2011, there were almost 30,000 of them — and the backlash began. Not only were some Montanans angry that pot shops were increasingly opening up close to home, but the Drug Enforcement Administration began cracking down on local businesses with alleged ties to illegal drug trafficking, according to the Washington Post.
So the Montana legislature, led by a conservative base, tried to repeal the medical cannabis law in 2011. At the time, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the bill, but he couldn’t stop the State Senate from passing another one, which placed severe limits on the state’s cannabis industry without the need for gubernatorial approval. As a result, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and six other plaintiffs sued, and the case has worked its way through the court system to the February verdict.
In its decision, the Montana Supreme Court admitted that ailing citizens should have access to medical marijuana, but the soon-to-be-instated law creates significant hurdles to obtaining it. Doctors can only write 25 recommendations a year; any more and the Department of Public Health and Human Services has to notify the Board of Medical Examiners. If you’re on probation, you can’t get a card. Providers can’t advertise, and their businesses are subject to searches without a warrant.
Worst of all, providers are only allowed to serve three patients; before the decision, the average provider had a client base of 14, with many having dozens or even hundreds more.
At the time of the ruling last month, there were more than 13,000 marijuana patients in the Montana purchasing medical cannabis from 476 different providers, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services. One of those providers is James Haney, who runs what he calls a “mom-and-pop” business. Before the ruling, he delivered medicine, grown on his own property, to his 50 patients in Billings. Now, he has to drop many of them, and when it comes time to make that decision, family comes first.
“It’s very hard to choose between a dying cancer patient when my wife has Crohn’s [disease], my son has Crohn’s,” he says. “What do you tell them?”
Since he stands to lose most of his revenue, Haney is considering going back into contracting, his job before he became a provider. He also serves as treasurer for the MTCIA, and as he explains, it’s not just patients and providers who are affected. The decision’s rippling consequences impact everyone from the landlords who rent their commercial spaces to providers, to NorthWestern Energy, which stands to lose $500,000 in revenue from power bills. And many believe the law makes room for a marijuana black market.
It will also have an impact on John Fanuzzi, whose older brother is one of Montana’s biggest medical cannabis providers. Fanuzzi has spent most of his adult life working as a budtender seeing patients every day and working with them to find the right treatments. Having gone through chemo as a kid, Fanuzzi understands what it’s like to experience nausea, loss of appetite and other symptoms that are easily alleviated by cannabis. Going through cancer is demanding enough, he says, without worrying about losing your medicine.
“I don’t think people need to be stressing out about something like that when they’re dealing with a bigger issue,” he says.
With his brother losing most of his earnings once the law takes effect, Fanuzzi expects that he’ll lose his job as well. Moving to another state may be his only option for finding employment.
“I didn’t go to college. I chose to do this to help my brother with his business,” Fanuzzi says. “I think my resume will go over a lot better in a place like Denver.”
With two dispensaries and 200 patients, Ryan, a Bozeman provider who declined to give his last name, is about to take a serious hit.
“How do you make that decision?” he says. “It puts us in a really bad spot because now we have to discriminate, and we have to make ethical decisions of who we provide medicine to and who we don’t.”
Ryan became a provider the same year the Senate bill was passed. He called the Supreme Court decision a big shock and he’s now one of the state’s many providers, patients, attorneys and activists who’ve banded together to protect their rights.
“It’s up to us to put pressure on the executive branch of our state government, on Gov. Steve Bullock, to pressure the lawmakers to fix this law,” Ryan says. “He can call a special session to fix this law and hopefully give our patients who are in imminent need and imminent danger of losing their medicine — hopefully he can fix this before it goes into effect.”
Right now though, the situation is in flux. The law was supposed to go into effect March 11, but the MTCIA bought patients some time by filing a reconsideration. At most, it only means an extra 20 days. Other advocates have filed a petition for a transition period that would last through April 2017, according to The Missoulian. Gov. Bullock supports the request. And in an interview with Flathead’s CBS affiliate, the group’s attorney James Goetz stated that the plaintiffs may take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the MTCIA is moving forward with a new medical marijuana initiative, which is currently in legislative services. Haney says that once it’s signed by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, they plan to gather enough signatures to make it on the ballot later this year. (The MTCIA’s focus is solely on medicinal marijuana. The group is not involved with the statewide movement to legalize recreational marijuana, which may also make it on the ballot.)
Still, many Montanans in need may have to wait until November to access their medicine. For Noni Sparks, if she’s dropped by her provider (and she assumes that she will be), that means returning to the same prescription treatments that were so bad for her before.
Her husband Joseph is understandably angry, not just for Noni, but for himself too; he uses medicinal cannabis to treat a brain injury he received 10 years ago.
“What gives you the right to think that you can take my sovereignty and limit what I can and cannot put in my body?” he says. “[The state legislature] has been listening to too many lies and all of their decisions have been based on lies, lies told to enhance control over the masses, lies told to further the stupid criminal enabling agenda that they have.”
His wife’s experience isn’t a lie. Joseph has watched her health decline over the years, and he’s seen how much cannabis has helped her — and he knows what will happen to Noni once their access to it is terminated.
“I’m powerless literally to do anything about it, and the doctors just sit and scratch their heads because they’re powerless,” he says. “But here’s this blessing from God, this plant that grows everywhere. It’s God’s gift and you’re saying we can’t use this. Why?”
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