Growing Up Fast

Nearly five years after Montanans voted to legalize medical marijuana, patients and caregivers say it’s high time state law provided them better access to their medicine



Duke Martin rolled up to the mercantile in a gold 1979 Chevy pickup. His pit bull, Babe, rode shotgun. A bear of a man, Martin unfurled his body from the truck, all 6 feet, 7 inches, and 265 pounds, and then let Babe out.

For a second, it felt like a dicey situation—we’d driven hours to hook up with a pot grower we’d never met. What the hell were we getting ourselves into?

Martin is a registered caregiver of medicinal marijuana, as well as a patient. He runs one of western Montana’s largest grow houses out of his home in the far reaches of northwest Montana, close to the Canadian border. He keeps a low profile for obvious reasons: While Martin says he takes great care to operate within Montana’s medical marijuana guidelines, his plants could land him years in prison under federal law.

For exactly that reason, our meeting took months to arrange. Even when he set a time and date, the details were limited. We wanted to learn about Martin’s business, but we didn’t know how much he’d say or what he’d show us. He had only sent an e-mail through an intermediary that read, “Tell them to go to the mercantile. Have them call me when they get there. I’ll show them the way.” The return e-mail address belonged to “DC Hydro.”

All of it added up to an awkward, maybe even intimidating, meeting at the mercantile.

Then Martin broke into a wide grin and asked in his laid-back, booming baritone, “How was the drive?”

He looked and sounded like Bill Walton, the Hall of Fame basketball player and current television analyst who came to prominence as a counterculture athlete in the early ’70s. Martin was quick to smile, laughed easily and tilted his head down to make eye contact. He wore a black T-shirt with bone lettering that read, “Paddle or Play Dead.”

We exchanged pleasantries in the parking lot while Babe licked our hands. After a few minutes, Babe jumped back into the Chevy and Martin suggested we go.

“Just follow me,” he said.

He drove down a long neighborhood road before turning off to a driveway lined with cars and trucks in different stages of repair. Martin lives on a plot of land that his wife’s great grandfather homesteaded. His mother-in-law lives next door. His son lives in a nearby cabin. The deck of Martin’s house overlooks snow-covered mountains. Nothing particularly stands out at the peaceful rural property, except perhaps for a single padlocked gate under the deck. We didn’t even notice it until Martin offered to show us where he grows four different strains of medical marijuana—81 plants total—for 41 patients located across the state.

Martin registered as a caregiver nearly four years ago, about six months after Montana voters passed an initiative to legalize medical marijuana. The law allows patients to grow six plants and possess one dried ounce of marijuana. Patients must register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), pay an annual $50 fee and receive a recommendation for marijuana from a licensed physician. Patients may also purchase medicine from a registered caregiver like Martin, who is allowed to cultivate six plants per patient, as well as hold an ounce of smokable marijuana for each. There’s no limit to the number of patients to whom a caregiver can provide medicine.

Martin finds his patients through word of mouth, and he says business is growing. He’s not alone. According to a December DPHHS report, the number of approved Montana caregivers has increased a whopping 5,713 percent since 2005, from eight to 565. More caregivers are registering simply to meet demand: The number of approved Montana patients jumped from 26 to 1,577 over the same time period. With business booming, Martin says he’ll soon move his grow operation out of his basement and to a larger facility.

A tour of Martin’s current setup includes more than just plants. When he unlocks the padlocked gate, we enter a holding room that leads to another locked door. Typically, Martin undresses here and puts on his grow clothes—pajama pants and a white short-sleeve T-shirt—to prevent bringing outside spider mites or other insects into the grow rooms. Two years ago mites infested his crop, wiping out an entire harvest and leaving his patients scrambling for medication. State law makes it difficult to recover from such a loss because of the strict limit on the number of plants he’s allowed to grow. The whole incident set Martin back months.

When he opens the second door of the holding room, there’s the strong smell of marijuana, but still no visible plants. The walls are painted white, the floor is impeccably clean and air ducts run across the ceiling. Four vats of liquid nutrients sit next to the far wall, connected to hoses that lead to two doors at either end of the room. It looks completely unremarkable, like any other windowless basement.

Then Martin opens the door to the left of the nutrient tanks. Inside, 40 plants are positioned in neat rows from wall to wall. The most mature plants reach nearly to the ceiling. The smallest plants stand at least three feet tall. A network of hoses connects the nutrient tanks to each plant’s pot. Two long, high-powered fluorescent lights rotate like a slow ceiling fan. It smells pungent.

Despite the impressive showing, Martin apologizes. He harvested his last crop three days before we arrived. The plants in this room will take weeks to bud.

“You sort of caught me with my pants down,” he says. “But I think you can still see how it works.”

Martin says he’s invested upwards of $30,000 on equipment to outfit his hydroponic grow rooms, including an automated watering system, ventilation control and mixed fluorescent lighting. He uses 100 percent organic nutrients to breed strains of “White Widow,” “Maui Wowie,” “Granddaddy Purple” and “Purple Cantaloupe.” In addition to the main room, he has another 41 recently potted plants in two other smaller rooms. He spends about four hours a day working in the basement to keep his crop healthy.

“You don’t just throw seeds into the ground and end up with a medical quality product,” he says. “It was a lot of hits and misses. It took me three and a half years to come up with the four strains I’m growing right now. I went through at least 150 different strains and probably thousands of phenotypical expressions of those strains before I came up with these plants.”

A tour of Martin’s business isn’t just confined to his basement. He leads us upstairs to his living room to discuss bookkeeping. Martin produces marijuana at a volume that allows him to keep costs lower than most caregivers. He charges $150 an ounce, nearly $100 less than the statewide caregiver average and $150 less than black market. Price is important, he says, because most of his customers are on limited income and struggle to pay medical expenses.

Martin says he reported $9,000 of income on his 2007 tax statement, but expects that number to go up in 2008 since he’s doubled his patient list. In a black binder he keeps the state-issued registration cards of all of his patients, a receipt book and a log of every transaction. The only time authorities audited DC Hydro, Martin
says his meticulous records helped quell any concerns.

“I’m completely within Montana state laws,” says Martin. “I’m under stock count. Everything I have is labeled and has the surgeon general’s warning on it. I even filed with the Department of Agriculture—told them I cut flowers. Every one of my patients signs for their medication. I run a receipt book in triplicate. I pay taxes, both state and federal. There’s nothing more that I can do.”

Martin’s adherence to the letter of the law is part of the reason he’s comfortable telling his story. The other reason is because he feels part of something bigger.

Caregivers and patients believe marijuana is rightfully gaining acceptance–both on a state and national level–as a legitimate form of medicine. During the current legislative session, lawmakers in Helena killed every bill that infringed on the current state law and nearly passed another bill that called for increasing patient access to marijuana. New U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said twice in the last two months that the federal government would no longer prosecute medical marijuana cases unless they didn’t comply with both state and federal laws. Sensing that momentum has shifted to their side, advocates are launching a calculated campaign to increase awareness about marijuana’s medicinal benefits in hopes of making it even more accessible to patients.

Martin performed his part by meeting with the media, pulling back the curtain and showing his business is legitimate. He didn’t make the decision lightly.

“I was really scared about this whole thing to begin with,” explains Martin. “I’ve always just flown under the radar and been fine with that. But I feel like maybe the climate’s changing. I feel like people are starting to come around. That’s why I agreed to meet.”

“A natural, God-given plant”

Tom Daubert laughs a little bit at the thought of marijuana emerging as a legitimate medicine. As the founder of Patients and Families United, the main group lobbying for medical marijuana rights in Helena, he argues its been emerging and re-emerging for centuries.

“One of the fundamental ironies of the subject is that this is all new and yet it’s all so ancient,” Daubert says. “People have used marijuana in precisely these same medical ways all over the world for over 5,000 years, and with the same success that Montana patients are experiencing today. It’s just a natural, God-given plant, but because of the drug war and all the mythology in government propaganda that has surrounded it, it seems so novel to a lot of people.”

Daubert worked as a lobbyist in Helena for more than 20 years before he was hired in 2004 to help the Montana Medical Marijuana Policy Project put a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot. The group tapped Daubert in part because he’s a communications specialist skilled at winning long-shot projects. In 1996 he worked on the mining industry’s opposition to the Clean Water Initiative, a measure that polled at 86 percent approval eight months before the election. Daubert helped develop the campaign that eventually led to its defeat, convincing voters that this particular “clean water” initiative didn’t actually help Montana’s treasured waterways.

With medical marijuana, he’s charged with a similar battle of perception: He must make traditionally conservative Montanans believe pot isn’t a recreational drug for burnt-out hippies, but medicine for patients suffering from terminal illness and chronic pain.

“It’s about education,” says Daubert. “Having grown up in the ’60s I thought I knew all there was to know about marijuana, but I found out that I didn’t at all. Getting to know the patients who simply want legal access to medicine has been a transforming experience for me.”

The initiative campaign gave advocates from across the state a platform for touting marijuana’s medicinal properties. Among the most prominent was the late Robin Prosser, a Missoula resident who suffered for more than 20 years from an immunosuppressive illness similar to lupus. Prosser was allergic to many prescription drugs and others simply didn’t work. Her doctors recommended marijuana, but she couldn’t legally access the drug. Prosser explained how she was forced to navigate the dangerous and unreliable black market for relief, and live in constant fear of arrest.

In November 2004, voters overwhelmingly sided with the Montana Medical Marijuana Policy Project, passing Initiative 148 with 62 percent of the vote, a larger percentage than Rep. Denny Rehberg, Gov. Brian Schweitzer or Sen. Jon Tester garnered in their races the same year. Daubert saw the vote as a mandate.

“It’s clear to me that what the voters intended was for legitimate patients whose physicians recommend it to have legal access to the medicine that helps them, without fear of arrest and prosecution,” says Daubert. “Voters weren’t focused on the nuances of the law. They were focused on the goal of letting the patients have what they need without fear.”

The nuances came later. Daubert helped author the legislation that turned the initiative into law, balancing the language to appease both those patients in need and skeptics who saw medical marijuana as an opportunity to exploit recreational drug use. In addition to limiting the number of plants and amount of usable marijuana a patient and caregiver can have on hand, the law specifies which illnesses are eligible for treatment, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, severe nausea and chronic pain. Only licensed Montana doctors can recommend marijuana. All patients and caregivers must register with the state.

The Montana Medical Marijuana Act came under fire during this legislative session. It’s something Daubert anticipated, and part of the reason he created Patients and Families United two years ago. The network of caregivers, patients and advocates counts 673 members among its mailing list and gathered more than 150 participants at a meeting last fall.

The group lobbied vigorously against numerous bills, most notably HB 473. The bill proposed to restrict convicted felons from receiving marijuana regardless of their medical condition and punish physicians who “negligently” recommended marijuana. Daubert deemed HB 473 “a truly onerous proposal” and organized testimony against it. The bill failed in a House committee. 

Daubert’s group didn’t just stay on the defensive. Patients and Families United backed SB 326, a bill sponsored by Missoula Sen. Ron Erickson that would allow a patient or caregiver to possess three ounces of usable marijuana, and increase the number of plants a caregiver or patient could grow. In addition, SB 236 would add Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, among others, to the list of treatable conditions. The bill passed the Senate—a surprise to many supporters—but failed after a full House vote.

“The process of promoting SB 326 really enlightened a lot of legislators who didn’t really have much familiarity before with the subject matter at all,” says Daubert. “But I think it ultimately failed because too many members of the Republican Party in the House continue to believe most of the federal government’s propaganda war on marijuana. They still cannot see marijuana as a legal medicine rather than as an illegal, threatening, criminal substance.”

Daubert believes it comes back to education, and making marijuana less of a taboo subject. That’s why he set up Patients and Families United’s flagship event of the session, an all-day exhibit of all things marijuana inside the Capitol rotunda, dubbed “Cannabis at the Capitol.” Caregivers from across the state displayed mature plants, cannabis tinctures and baked goods made with marijuana. Stacks of literature about everything from industrial hemp to alternative health care lined the booths. Caregivers, patients and doctors roamed the hall offering to tell more than 100 legislators, reporters and members of the public their stories. Edwin Stickney, a Billings physician, formally addressed the crowd about how marijuana has changed his patients’ lives.

“They’re not a bunch of druggies,” he said.

Chris Lindsey is one of Stickney’s patients who doesn’t fit the conventional profile. Lindsey, a criminal defense attorney in Helena, suffers from Crohn’s disease, which inflames the gastrointestinal tract. After years of taking pharmaceuticals, he switched to medical marijuana nine months ago to treat his pain. Although his new medication “works wonders,” he struggles to make it work within the law.

“My problem is that six plants and one ounce per month forces me into an assembly line,” he says. “I’m maintaining two plants under fluorescent light, two more plants in a vegetative state and another set of plants blooming for at least two months. I’m a guy who’s living in a home with his family, and I’ve got three rooms with pot growing in them, all so I can get one ounce a month.”

Lindsey wanted lawmakers to pass SB 326 so he could harvest more plants and limit his growing to just three months of the year.

“It’s illegal for me to sell this to non-patients no matter how much I get,” says Lindsey, “so why don’t you crank the limit up so that I can do this just once a year?”

Caregivers Jessica and Christopher Williams also stand out against the perceived marijuana crowd. Jessica works as a registered nurse and helps her husband—a caregiver for eight years in Colorado and California before he moved to Montana—run a grow operation outside of Bozeman. Jessica keeps flow charts of all of the couple’s patients, tracking their symptoms and medications just as she would at a hospital. She’s been passionate about medical marijuana ever since her uncle used it to ease his pain from a terminal case of multiple sclerosis.

“I’ve held somebody’s hand as they died,” she says. “That changes everything. It puts everything in perspective. This is not something we went into lighthearted. There’s a lot at stake. We’ve done our research. We keep it as safe and as legal as we can possibly be under state law.”

Specifically, Jessica and Christopher grow away from their home to protect their two children, ages 6 and 12. The precaution proved wise when one of their facilities was robbed in January. Despite the setback, the couple is resolute about continuing with their work.

“We’re here to change the face of medical marijuana and marijuana in general,” says Jessica. “It’s not the stereotypical pot-smoking hippie. It’s ranchers, it’s lawyers, it’s every Montanan. I don’t know any Montanan who hasn’t been affected by cancer in one way or another. When you look at that and how many people benefit from this medicine, it really puts things into perspective. It reaches everyone.”

Although nothing in the Montana Medical Marijuana Act changed this legislative session, Daubert says events like “Cannabis at the Capitol” signaled progress. He expects Patients and Families United to continue its effort to expand the law in 2011.

“We created a platform for success,” Daubert says. “There are any number of legislators who tended to be unsupportive and who now understand and would like to be supportive. Those legislators who were supportive before are now deeply committed to helping. They truly understand the details. Beyond that, I think we made great strides in our relations with law enforcement, and that’s something that we’ve been focused on since the start.”

“There’s a better way”

Craig Campbell, executive director of the Montana Narcotics Officers Association (MNOA) and a detective with the Helena Police Department, chooses his words carefully when discussing medical marijuana. He prefaces his opinion on current state law by saying he understands what Montana voters chose to do. He also doesn’t want to deny any type of legal health care to patients in need.

“That said, we feel there’s a better way than medicinal marijuana,” he says.

The MNOA sides with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Montana Medical Association (MMA) in recognizing marijuana as a dangerous drug, not medicine. The federal government makes a straightforward argument about the distinction. In order to meet the requirements of the Controlled Substances Act, a drug’s chemistry must be known and reproducible; there must be adequate safety studies; there must be adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy; the drug must be accepted by qualified experts; and scientific evidence must be widely available. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, marijuana falls short on every count.

Law enforcement is the staunchest opponent of expanding medical marijuana laws, and butts heads with advocates on almost every front. While Daubert believes his group made great strides in educating the public and lawmakers about marijuana’s benefits, Campbell worries that events like “Cannabis at the Capitol” send the wrong message. While Daubert touts the unexpected progress made in the Legislature, Campbell openly questions the group’s motivations. He specifically points to HB 541, a bill that would decriminalize the possession of 30 grams of marijuana or less. The bill failed after a full House vote.

“I have to wonder, are they just pro-marijuana or is this about medicine?” asks Campbell. “I mean, they get up and speak about needing marijuana for medicinal purposes. They’re really good about calling it their medicine, even though the FDA and AMA say it’s not a medicine. But they also show up calling for decriminalization. Which is it? It tells me that these people are just merely pro-marijuana.”

Campbell admits MNOA’s stance against medical marijuana is moot in the face of state law. In other words, law enforcement is forced to make the best of the situation and he says they’ve taken steps to be more knowledgeable about the law. At MNOA’s annual conference last month, prosecutors updated the group on the latest state rulings and federal policies.

Even with a better understanding of the law, Campbell thinks there are still major problems. He specifically mentions a January incident when Missoula authorities arrested a 40-year-old medical marijuana patient for growing 30 plants in his garage. After the raid, police left the man’s legally allowed six plants, a small jar of usable marijuana and all of his paraphernalia.

“That’s actually ludicrous considering this person just blatantly broke the law,” says Campbell. “Law enforcement’s really tried to err on the side of caution by leaving the suspect/caregiver the amount he or she is legally allowed to have by law. But it doesn’t make any sense.”

The situation points to Campbell’s biggest concern with the state’s medical marijuana law. While he believes the majority of caregivers and patients operate within the current legal limits, he feels others are using it to juke the system.

“I did meet some fine people during the session,” he says, noting he learned more about the importance of tinctures and baked goods. “I met some people who I sat down with and had honest conversations with, and I believe that they are growing and they are storing what they’re supposed to by law. But I also think there are people across the state using it merely to subvert the marijuana control acts and they’re giving everyone else a bad name. Those are the people who are making this especially difficult.”

“It’s ambiguous”

Caregivers and patients don’t necessarily disagree with Campbell’s assessment. Patients and Families United takes great care to ensure its members have an equally accurate understanding of the current law, rather than individual interpretations. But even within the legal boundaries, there are gray areas that have captured law enforcement’s attention and muddied the picture.

The Montana Medical Marijuana Act doesn’t specifically address caregiver cooperatives. When caregivers like the Williams or Martin lose a crop either from theft or spider mites, it’s unclear whether they can work with another caregiver to provide medicine to their patients. DPHHS recommends in an online FAQ that caregivers consult with a “local law enforcement officer or personal attorney” before considering a cooperative. Patients and Families United does not have an official position on the issue.

Hash provides another sticky subject area. Some advocates believe this potent form of condensed cannabis offers more medicinal value than marijuana buds. Current state law doesn’t address whether it’s legal or not.

“That’s also a gray area that our group has not focused on developing a recommended interpretation, and also one in which different people are acting differently,” says Daubert.

Even areas that appear straightforward can cause problems. The Independent visited on-site with a second registered caregiver who requested anonymity. The caregiver only has six patient cards, but a tour of his grow rooms turned up 41 plants—five more than allowed by law.

“I believe it’s ambiguous,” he said. “If a caregiver can have six plants for each patient and a patient can have six plants of their own, I can help take care of a patient’s plants.”

By this caregiver’s interpretation, he’s legally allowed to have 72 plants, as long as his patients don’t possess their own plants. Daubert says this is another gray area. Law enforcement believes it’s illegal, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always act.

“We’ve found that many communities, for lack of a better word, do not want to open the ‘Pandora’s Box’ of prosecuting people that have medicinal cards, even in cases when we believe they’re acting outside the law,” says Campbell.

The anonymous caregiver also keeps a 5-gallon bucket of “leaf shavings” outside his grow room. The contents are leftovers from clipping mature buds, “but they’re not good enough for my patients or me,” he says. The caregiver expects to use what’s in the bucket to make hash, tincture or butter.

“The law says that what I’ve cut off—the renderings—doesn’t count against my legal amount,” he says.

Again, Daubert says this is a gray area of the law.

While Daubert reiterates his group’s efforts to stay within the current law, he also believes these examples point to the restrictions of the Montana Medical Marijuana Act. If Campbell and law enforcement want to crack down on those who are obviously breaking the law, then make the law more practical for approved patients.

“We know from all our work with patients and caregivers that the law is very difficult to work within and that it needs to be improved for the voter decision to be fulfilled,” says Daubert. “That’s why we went to Helena this session and why I expect we’ll return in two years.”

“I medicated this morning”

Duke Martin sits on a couch in his living room petting Babe. He talks modestly about his green thumb, and how he went from fixing cars and building houses for 20 years to growing marijuana.

“I ruptured a disc in my back and had every possible shoulder injury you can imagine,” he says. “I was determined to grow something and decided to try kohlrabi. Then I got the recommendation for marijuana from my doctor, found that it was working for me and decided to grow that instead.” 

Martin makes it seem as if anyone could put together a grow operation as efficient and organized as the one in his basement. In fact, he often helps patients grow their own plants, a teach-them-to-fish practice followed by most caregivers.

“All I did was read a bunch of books,” he says. “The truth shall be found in a lot of people’s mouths, that’s what I found. It took so long to filter through all of the information and figure out what works best, that was the only hard part.”

While Martin remains humble and reserved about his gardening skills, he riffs like a talk show host when discussing state and federal marijuana policies. He believes marijuana should be legalized and taxed to help solve the nation’s financial woes (a common sentiment heard in reporting this story). He believes big pharmaceutical companies are the main reason legalization will never happen. He believes the side effects of marijuana, like decreased motor skills, are exaggerated.

“I medicated this morning,” he says to prove his point.

Martin gets most excited, however, when talking about how the political discourse over medical marijuana has evolved in recent months. He points out how far the state has come in a matter of years and notes that, despite obvious growing pains, perceptions are changing.

“People are looking at it as a legitimate medication, and it seems like that’s changed since I first started,” he says. “Four years ago a lot of people were afraid to get their licenses because they thought it was just a way for the government to know who was who. Four years ago we wouldn’t be talking about any of this.”

Martin points to the clearest example of change: “All the old women in the neighborhood,” including his mother-in-law, took time to call legislators in Helena this session.

“They know patients who need this,” he says. “Everyone does now. They see that it’s important medicine.”

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