Montana is in right position to lead nation on medical marijuana law as well as on quality standards

Montana is in right position to lead nation on medical marijuana law as well as on quality standards

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As the 2011 legislative session approaches, savvy Montana medical cannabis businesses are hustling to maximize opportunities and consolidate power in this legal, yet lawless, era. The smart players will look up the road, look at the legislative makeup and what proposals are in the hopper, and position themselves to be nimble and survive whatever comes down the pike.

In cobbling together a medical marijuana system in Montana in the recent era of exponential growth, the question often asked by the players — “Can we do this?” — was often answered with “Nothing says we can’t.” Then they ginned up the paperwork for the rationale, got lawyers, signatures, notarizations, and did some business, baby.

Some of it was opportunistic. Some of it was creating needed infrastructure.

The model that emerged reflects the state’s character. Entrepreneurial. Independent. Such qualities generate both strengths and weaknesses. Other states recognize that Montana’s emergent system that resulted from the real experience of producing and delivering the product makes more sense than systems and structures that get imposed prematurely before parties know what is entailed in making such a system work.

A weakness in this emergent system, however, is a lack of standards. With medical cannabis, the market can only drive standards to an extremely limited extent because patients must sign up with a provider before procuring cannabis. This means no opportunity to “shop around” and find the best product and business. Patients with the least experience with cannabis are at the greatest disadvantage under this provision.

So as the market is unable to drive standards, the current push for them is coming from communities. Even those who don’t engage economically with the cannabis market get to step in and assert standards. Whether it’s the oil industry or the medical cannabis industry, society gets to weigh in, and the cannabis industry hasn’t bought enough politicians yet to get away with what BP does.

But should our lawmakers fail to build good infrastructure, it’s all a matter of time. The cannabis industry will own politicians straight-up, no different than the Tavern Association, the former Christian Coalition, or the AFL-CIO. Legislation that clamps down on the industry won’t change this. Compression just squishes the balloon. Legislation can chase “problems,” but one problem “solved” just tends to turn into another. The alternative is to use legislation to build infrastructure that allows the industry to develop along a trajectory on which the “problems” legislators are trying to solve don’t, or can’t, exist.

Good infrastructure starts with standards: standards for the product, the doctors and the way businesses operate. “Structure,” such as limiting licenses or business models, do not constitute standards. They address form, not content. Controlling the industry instead of making it qualitatively better will just make it dysfunctional in a new way. Imposing an industry model can lead to fewer businesses. But so can standards, and with standards you don’t just get fewer, you get better.

There’s also the option of repeal. But the reputable science on the human cannabinoid system and the role exogenous cannabinoids (as found in cannabis) can play in treating Alzheimer’s, autism, cancer (not just the side effects of chemotherapy), to name but a paltry few, will keep the medical use of marijuana in play in our society. It’s simply too valuable to drive back to the black market.

Repeal will just put Montana behind the curve, which would be a shame. Just as in all Montana professions, we have some of the best here because Montana is such a desirable place to live. Montana can be leaders and innovators and bring standards and integrity to the industry. Dealing with the reality of cannabis in our economic, medical, political and scientific worlds is going to take some learning. The fact that we don’t know how isn’t a problem but a starting place. We need to take steps and learn, take steps and learn.

Kate Cholewa is a Helena writer and lobbyist. She blogs on the politics, economics, culture and science of the medical cannabis industry at


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