States, Communities Struggling With Medical Marijuana Regulations

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Whether it's the LAPD attempting to close 400 of the city's marijuana dispensaries or Montana adding nearly 20 percent more card-carrying medical marijuana users just last month, states and municipalities are struggling this summer with legislating about medical pot.

Some 15 states have passed laws that legalize medical marijuana in some form. For most of them, dispensing the drug remained a small and tentative program until October of last year. That was when the Obama administration decided to take a hands-off approach to state operations.

"It will not be a priority to use federal resources to prosecute patients with serious illnesses or their caregivers who are complying with state laws on medical marijuana," Attorney General Eric Holder said then, adding all bets were off with trafficking across state "behind claims of compliance with state law to mask activities that are clearly illegal."

The stance assumed the various state laws were ready to actually regulate the industry. But attitudes and rules vary greatly state-by-state and county-by-county in Patchwork Nation. What has ensued is a flood of new patients and dispensaries, the corresponding complaints against them, a few hurry-up efforts to modify the laws and, in a few isolated cases, violence against marijuana stores.

Marijuana Under the Big Sky

The rationale for originally passing the laws was clear to many voters. Here in Montana, the medical marijuana referendum passed by 62 percent in 2004, a clear victory for advocates who argued that the terminally ill and other patients should be allowed to use the drug to ease their pain.

But then people started lining up for doctors at cannabis conventions -- no medical records required -- and doctors started issuing prescriptions after a 10-minute conversation over Skype.

Montana got special attention in some national media for its conventions and a mobile "cannabis caravan" operated by a Missoula-based advocacy group. One doctor was cited by her medical board for participating in a convention where she saw 150 people in less than 15 hours -- a patient every six minutes.

The developments have prompted even pro-pot Montanans to back away from some of the more aggressive medical marijuana operations.

Regarding the Montana caravans, Mike Meno, spokesman for the pot legalization lobbying group the Marijuana Policy Project, said: "The more I hear about these things, it sounds like they're not following the intent of the law. People say they might be making a mockery of the law, and I hope that's not the case."

The leading advocates for Montana's referendum back making changes to the current law in an effort to stabilize public support. Doctors also want more oversight.

"I didn't envision there would be marijuana stores on every corner of Grand Avenue and these fairs at the Holiday Inn," said internist Deric Weiss, M.D., who chairs the ethics committee at Billings Clinic. Billings is part of Yellowstone County, a small-town Service Worker Center. "Most of us envisioned it would be through your personal physician and part of a comprehensive plan of care."

More than 16,000 people are card-carrying marijuana users in Montana; 2,500 were given their "green card" in May alone. Nearly 25 percent of all patients are between the ages of 25 and 30. The No. 1 reason for the prescription? "Chronic pain."

Fueled by those numbers and a public increasingly uneasy with watching marijuana storefronts pop up in their towns, media coverage has tilted. Its focus is less on the cancer sufferer hoping to eat without nausea or the MS patient dealing with crippling pain and more on the business and law enforcement angles that surround the now hundreds of dispensaries and caregivers.

Problems in all Types of Places

And it's not just small towns raising issues in Montana. Missoula, located in the Boom Town county of Missoula, is a fairly cosmopolitan home of the University of Montana. The local paper in town here reflected the change in mood on medical marijuana.

Last Sunday, it editorialized that the situation in Montana "has passed the point of ridiculousness and is now firmly in the realm of the tragic." The paper called for our town of 60,000 to close all the storefront dispensaries and ban new ones until the state Legislature -- which only meets once every two years -- can tackle the issue.

The boom has soured many of the city and state legislators who initially endorsed the referendum. More than a dozen cities have placed moratoriums on new marijuana businesses for six months. Others have sought zoning restrictions. No one can know how it will affect the state legislative races this fall, but it's hard to imagine candidates not hitting on a subject that has voters so worked up.

And Montana is only one front in the battle for medical pot.

In Los Angeles, a big city Industrial Metropolis, the city is trying to shutter hundreds of shops as part of an ordinance aimed at limiting to 70 stores scattered throughout the city. On Wednesday, more than 170 existing stores filed paperwork with City Hall in an attempt to remain open.

Now officials will have to pour over documentation to determine if these stores meet city standards. In addition, they'll have to respond to a lawsuit filed by operators who claim legality.

In Colorado, the state moved to give local communities more control and toughen the medical oversight of patients. Gov. Bill Ritter signed two laws this month seeking to address what he called, "the chaotic proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries in communities all around Colorado."

The new regulations allow towns to ban dispensaries and require doctors to physically examine a patient before prescribing marijuana.

Kathy Heicher, a newspaper journalist and Patchwork Nation blogger from the Boom Town of Eagle, Colo., said the situation has split her community in ways that sound familiar here in Montana.

"There was this sort of lull for a year after the medical marijuana law was approved, then the dispensary applications started coming in ... even in rural towns like Eagle," she wrote. "The issue did spur some spirited letters to the editor, and the battle isn't over yet. My neighbor, who was born and raised in this town and serves on the town board, was extremely concerned about what kind of image Eagle would project by allowing medical marijuana dispensaries."

Despite the local and state government uneasiness, business is booming and so are tax revenues. In Colorado Springs, the local government collected $123,000 in sales tax from medical marijuana stores in the first four months of 2010.

That infusion of cash as well as other related business spending puts communities in a difficult position, even in somewhat-remote Eagle.

"[T]he medical marijuana dispensaries are big sales tax generators in a time when everybody is hurting for revenue," Hischer said. "I'm a newspaper writer ... and these days it looks like the marijuana dispensaries might be one of the strongest ad accounts in our ski resort valley."

Advocates hope the patients in need won't be lost in the flurry of media coverage, but Greg Campbell, a journalist who covers the medical marijuana industry, sees a rough few months ahead.

"Whereas last year marked the beginning of the great Green Rush in the United States," Campbell wrote last week, "the summer of 2010 is shaping up to be one of consolidation and entrenchment for the medical pot industry as numerous states tweak, fine-tune and argue over their various laws."

Lee Banville is the former editor-in-chief of the Online NewsHour and is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Montana at Missoula. He is also a digital strategy adviser to the NewsHour.