If American society's tolerance for marijuana is now growing, then what happened in Montana illustrates just what can happen when the government decides things have gone too far.

Pot advocates were running caravans, helping hundreds of residents in a day get medical marijuana user cards. Some doctors who conducted cursory exams on scores of people were fined. As the number of users quickly grew, so did a retail industry that led some to dub the state "Big High Country."

Today, thousands of medical pot providers have gone out of business, and a health department survey showed that the number of registered users have fallen to less than a quarter of their 2011 numbers.

The drop was driven in part by a tougher 2011 law on medical marijuana use and distribution. But more than anything, marijuana advocates say, the demise of the once-booming medical pot industry was the result of the largest federal drug-trafficking investigation in the state's industry.

The three-year investigation by the U.S. attorney's office, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal agencies wrapped up last week when the last of 33 convicted defendants was sentenced. That allowed its architect, U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter, to speak publicly for the first time on the crackdown.

"For a long time, we were hearing complaints from local law enforcement and from citizens ... that they were tired of marijuana and they were tired of it next to schools, to churches, people smoking it openly on the streets," Cotter said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"It was just something that had to be done," he said. "And the result of doing it the way that we did, it was a strong statement that marijuana wasn't going to be tolerated in Montana."

Cotter said he believes he is on the right side of history, regardless of what is happening in the country. Last fall, voters in Colorado and Washington state passed laws to legalize recreational pot use, and a Pew Research Center poll released last month found 52 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal.

The Justice Department has yet to decide whether to sue in federal court to block Colorado and Washington's laws under the legal argument that federal laws outlawing any use, possession or distribution of marijuana prevail over state laws.

In Montana, what started out as a system to provide marijuana to those with health problems turned the state into a source for drug trafficking, Cotter said. The industry had ballooned so much and so quickly that drug traffickers were operating under the guise of medicinal caregivers, and the pot was being sent to users in New Jersey, Virginia, Colorado and other states, he said.

Now, marijuana is still in Montana, but it's manageable, he said.

The investigations were split geographically into three parts: Operation Smokejumper, Operation Weed Be Gone and Operation Noxious Weed. They targeted medical marijuana providers dealing in more than 100 plants and came away with 34 indictments, from a longtime state lobbyist to a former University of Montana quarterback.

Most of those arrested argued at first that they were following the state's medical marijuana law. When federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Thaggard, successfully squelched that argument in court, all but three of the providers made plea deals.

The federal Controlled Substances Act, which bans any distribution or use of marijuana, trumps state law, Thaggard said. Besides, the investigation found that none of the defendants was following state law, he added.

"I think that we were confident that if we had to go down that road, we would show just how out of compliance these people were," Thaggard said.

The final scorecard: 33 convictions. Thirty-one made plea deals, two went to trial and lost and the case against the accountant of a provider was dismissed.

Federal prosecutors in other states watched closely as the probe unfolded in Montana, and was widely seen as a success and possibly a model for others, Cotter said.

"Speaking through enforcement action does have the deterrent effect that is needed," Cotter said. "It had the effect that we were looking for, and that was to deter the trafficking of marijuana."

Montana Cannabis Information Association spokesman and Marijuana Policy Project lobbyist Chris Lindsey — who also was one of the 33 providers convicted in the probe — agreed the federal investigation was the main driver in changing the shape of the industry.

But a federal crackdown won't stem the tide of the public will, he said.

Montana residents are increasingly in favor of improving the medical marijuana laws so there is better regulation and better access for those who need it, Lindsey said. "In Montana, it seems our options have only been the wild, wild West or no activity at all. Ultimately, we will be in the middle," Lindsey said.

Cotter and DEA Agent in Charge Brady MacKay, who led much of the investigation, dispute that medical marijuana is beneficial for the seriously ill. They say patients who need the relief that marijuana provides should get it from Marinol, a prescription drug that contains some of the properties of marijuana.

"I think it's Madison Avenue marketing, the person who dreamed up tying medical and marijuana together," Cotter said. "It's a powerful marketing tool. But the fact of the matter remains that marijuana is a dangerous drug and it's harmful to people," Cotter said.

(18) comments

Cannabis killer
Cannabis killer

It’s odd that they don’t crack down on the meth houses and meth labs in Montana….. Why waste money on trying to stop bud growers. Let’s solve the big problems first then move to the smaller problems.

driredude
driredude

"Pot advocates were running caravans, helping hundreds of residents in a day get medical marijuana user cards"

I was just getting back into town when this was going on and it suprised me how fast i was able to get a card. 50 bucks and complaining about pain from a hangnail was all it took and i had my card in less then 30 minutes

APerfectCure
APerfectCure

Mr. Cotter if marijuana is so dangerous why is there no ill side effects associated with marijuana? Furthermore, do you have any study at all that scientifically proves your synopsis to be correct. I have over 3,000 documents from various medical research components that states marijuana is actually benefical to the body?
Mr Cotter if you are so right why are you not running the country? 55% of Americans want to leagalize marijuana are you calling the people that allow your job to happen wrong? Have you ever read the constitution or the billor rights?
Mr Cotter do you realize marijuana was always here and will always be here.
Mr. Cotter can you show one caregiving facility that was "next to a school"?
Mr. Cotter this was your time to express why you did this but you still have not yet proven there was a demand fromt he people of Montana. All factions above the people were involved in shutting downing a great industry. The people of Montana made lots of rash decisions based on the falsified testimony given by law enforcment and several other organizations. Lies carrry a heavy burden.
Cannabis is still the greatest medicine on the planet, Marinol doen not caontain one active ingrediant from marijuana. It is a like substance, but because it is merely based ont he same structure as THC, it does not have the same componenets. THC has a higher affinity to CB1 and CB2 receptors where as marinol does not.
Marinol cannot make the endocannabinoid system function like THC does.
Cotter has spent more time lying to the people with no knowledge. Cotter is not one to trust on anything, he has lied to the people thousands of times and his history and past show his devilish disguise.
Mr. Cotter would you consider moving to North Korea? I think they need you there.

SerialThriller
SerialThriller

While thousands die from drunk drivers daily. How can this even be happening? Alcohol is FAR worse than weed. FAR.. I havent smoked pot in 20 plus years, but the truth is I'd rather see my neighbors, family..etc...whatever...smoking weed as opposed to ANYTHING ELSE out there. ESPECIALLY alcohol! My oldest daughter is an advocate. She is the kindest, most peaceful loving person you'd ever meet. Would do anything for anyONE. Unless shes drinking that is. Thankfully, she recognizes that. She's no one anyone wants to be around after only a few drinks. MOST PEOPLE ARE. But lets keep on with this ridiculous witch hunt on pot smokers while the streets and hwy's look more and more like sections of white picket fences from all booze related deaths. Lets keep giving repeat offenders 30 days for causing massive crashes (that they get to serve when THEY want in the next 6 months) This is so incredibly wrong.
I love Montana. Its my home. Besides going 'home' to Ireland, there is NO where else Id rather be. But it sure is in the dark ages.

JVH77
JVH77

When making statements that are contrary to public opinion and all available medical science such as this one:

"Cotter and DEA Agent in Charge Brady MacKay, who led much of the investigation, dispute that medical marijuana is beneficial for the seriously ill. They say patients who need the relief that marijuana provides should get it from Marinol, a prescription drug that contains some of the properties of marijuana."

Shouldn't it be incumbent upon a public official to offer some kind of evidence for such an assertion? Or at the very least shouldn't the person writing the story follow up with some kind of insistence upon a foundation for that belief. For people following this story from the beginning this article offered very little in the way of new information. I would've liked to hear Mr. Cotter's explanation for his belief that todays industry in Montana is "managable" as opposed to two and a half years ago. What his definition of "managable"is, where do other states fall on that scale, and who decides. It would've been nice to see him challenged on his lack of science or verifiable evidence concerning cannabis and its medicinal properties. Or maybe the writer could've asked whether he believes the state wide Federal crackdown has had any impact on the number of people actually using cannabis in the state or if the impact was just on those using it legally. At the very least he should've been called out on his insistence that every indicted provider was operating outside of state laws given he didn't offer any evidence for that. Information that came out in the trial I attended certainly didn't paint the clear cut picture of state violations he describes. And since everyone else was forced into plea deals by drug laws intended to fight organized crime in the 70's and 80's there's little chance most will ever be able to refute that false claim. He seems well aware that cannabis is still here and isn't leaving so I wonder why it is he sees his little operation as such a success?

His insistence that he is on the right side of history certainly is noble if he truly believes it, though the trends are certainly moving away form his viewpoint so I'm not sure where his optimism stems from. I would hope his beliefs are genuine rather than the result of greed and selfishness. But he's an intelligent man, you don't get where he is otherwise. And somewhere along the lines that level of education he's received contradicts the lunacy he's spouting on cannabis and the people he's fighting against. He knows this isn't a war of right and wrong, it's a war of money. And he's on the side that has it at the moment.

But the tides have already started to shift in parts of the country. I was in Colorado recently to find out a little about the process they have been going through for several years now and the cannabis businesses there are as legitimate and professional as any other company in the state, and quite profitable. The balance of financial power has already shifted in one state. How long before more fall to the juggernaut of capitalism the cannabis industry can potentially become? They aren't looked at as a burden at all but as a benefit financially for virtually every industry and the state as a whole. Colorado's medical cannabis program has been a success by any measure and all indications point to the new law as continuing that trend. I almost hope the Federal Government tries to stop them from implementing it, the citizens of Colorado will fight for freedom with a courage that we evidently lack.

All in all I guess only history will tell if Mr. Cotter has been fighting the nobel fight against his fellow citizens or if over 50% of the population and growing are misguided in our belief that the world has better things to do than worry about a plant and who's using it. He's certainly got his work cut out for him.

FlamingLiberal1
FlamingLiberal1

The dispensary busts were nothing but a blatant money grab by the feds. The property and money were confiscated before charges were even filed. Marijuana a dangerous drug? Please. How many people are dying every day because of alcohol? And prescription drugs? The risk of toxicity from marijuana is nil. Statistically insignificant. Not so for alcohol, or for the pain medications that marijuana replaces. Drunk driving just claimed the lives of a 16 year old and her grandma. How many high drivers are out there?

dolphind3
dolphind3

It needed to be stopped and as I predicted, it was.

JVH77
JVH77

Your clairvoyance is astonishing but nothing has ended. The only thing that has changed is free markets once again became black markets.

dolphind3
dolphind3

It is illegal as it should be. If you need a card get it from a real doctor.

mtgeezer
mtgeezer

The whole medical marijuana situation is bogus. Medical marijuana does work, it has definite benefits, especially in chronic pain and cancer therapy. I have a bad back injury that has forced me to quit working altogether from constant pain. I went on the program for one reason, my only options at the time were: take prescribed opiates which are extremely addictive and are responsible for an average of 40 deaths a day but fine by government standards, or I find about $40k for a back operation and there is NO WAY that will allow a local doctor to cut on me.

The whole situation went wild because local law enforcement declined to enforce the laws implemented under I-148, not just here but all over. For one thing, a person growing medical marijuana was/is not allowed to grow it in full public view (that is a recipe for disaster) but nothing was done about the business on North Montana Ave. that grew less than 100' off the avenue. They should have been ticketed for that and made to move everything out of view. But that didn't happen, it was stolen in the middle of the night and the business had other issues too but law enforcement did little, if anything about that. To protect and serve? Nope!

If the legislature was so concerned in the beginning they should have formed a comittee to establish a safe and equitable set of operational guidelines. They didn't. Local leaders should do the same thing to insure a safe business and access to qualified persons. They didn't. They did nothing to help the system the people voted on and it got so bad that they used their inability to control the situation and then let the panel of psychics we call the starte legislature override the law and hobble it as much as possible.

As a result, building owners lost rent from empty businesses, real and potential employees lost income (as well as the state who lost revenue from incomet taxes) and I wonder just how many thousands of dollars have been spent by the state in unemployment and welfare for ex-employees. It could have been regulated fairly and the state and local communities could be better off but NO.

dolphind3
dolphind3

No, the situation got out of control because drug dealers and abusers just plain ignored the law and abused it. Big shock.

JVH77
JVH77

Actually drug dealers are reaping far bigger profits today than at any point during the height of Montana's medical cannabis industry. An actual business is a bit more difficult and expensive to maintain than black market dealing I suspect. I have a hard time believing that all those former cardholders just decided to quit.

FlamingLiberal1
FlamingLiberal1

Uh... YEAH, that was my point. We enrich the illegal drug dealers, deny access to people with legitimate needs, and do nothing to curb recreational use by prohibiting medical marijuana. The abusers who got cards simply returned to their black-market channels. Dealers can increase their prices because the abusers can't go buy it for $200 an ounce at the dispensary anymore, but the cancer patients and such who actually legitimately need this medicine are unable to do so, at least in a semi-legal way.

FlamingLiberal1
FlamingLiberal1

So the law was changed so the legitimate users can't get it, while the black market still flourishes. Drug dealers will gladly sell to kids like mine, but grandmas with cancer can't get any unless their grandkids go score for them. That's how it was intended to work, right?

Riamh
Riamh

And things are different now how? As JVH77 pointed out, the once Free Markets have reverted to black markets, The "dealers and abusers" as you put it are STILL ignoring the law. At one time, those "dealers" paid taxes, and were of some benefit to society in general. This is no longer true. Meanwhile over half the country's populace disagrees with present laws, and the fed's heavy hand is beginning to show in other areas, like guns.

Darth Vader
Darth Vader

It is 2013....and Pot is still illegal. That is ridiculous. Too many tax dollars are spent busting folks in possession of Pot. At least we are not Texas...where, I believe you can get 100 years (max sentence) for possession. We have far more social problems as a result of alcohol and it has been legal for quite a while.

anniegreen852
anniegreen852

This is so interesting! I need to talk with my Edmonton injury lawyer about this.

Annie | www.accidentinjurylawyer.com

alena
alena

It is sad to see this drug become more acceptable today. Even though it is only legal in some states it is sad those who need the drug to help with health reasons can't easily get it. Those who abuse the drug have all the access they want, It isn't right.

Alena | http://www.cdb-law.com/our-practice-areas/wrongful-death/

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