On a Friday afternoon inside Cinder, a recreational marijuana store in Spokane, Wash., a line of customers contemplate their choices. Locked plexiglass cases hold a brightly lit array of cannabis, from infused edibles to flower buds to waxes to pre-rolled joints. The layout gives Cinder the look and feel of a cellphone store, albeit with a very different product.
On a wall near the cash register, visitors have stuck pushpins into a map of North America to show where they've traveled from. Pins heavily cluster around the Northwest. One is placed in the center of "Missoula."
"We see a lot of Idaho IDs," says Zack Krogh, a professional "budtender," when asked about Cinder's customer base. "Honestly, I think we see as many Montanas as we do Idaho. We've got regulars that come in from Montana and that only come here for this."
"This" refers to legal marijuana. The weed scene is wildly different in Washington—and other states that have recently legalized recreational use of marijuana, including Colorado and Oregon—than in Montana, where the status of the state's medical marijuana program is in turmoil, much as it has been for most of the past 12 years. A recent Montana Supreme Court ruling severely gutted the state's medical marijuana program, and by Aug. 31, thousands of patients stand to lose legal access to their medicine.
Cannabis patients and providers are pinning their hopes on three citizen-led ballot initiatives that, if approved by voters, will strengthen the state's medical marijuana program and legalize recreational marijuana once and for all. But one initiative from anti-marijuana advocates seeks to remove the medical program entirely.
Though marijuana remains in limbo in Montana, the game has changed enormously in other parts of the country. The anti-weed contingent points to the loosening laws in nearby states as exactly the reason why more controls are needed in Montana. Cannabis advocates agree the state should look to Washington, Oregon and Colorado—but as examples of how legal access to marijuana could benefit the Treasure State.
Depending on their side of the argument, shops like Cinder—located about three hours from Missoula—are either a beacon of progress or Montana's ultimate buzzkill.
For some medical cannabis patients in Missoula, the brightly lit pot shops in Washington might as well be a million miles away. Many patients panicked after the February ruling from the Montana Supreme Court, which upheld most of the restrictions on the state's marijuana program enacted by the 2011 Montana Legislature's SB 423 law. After weeks of uncertainty about when the restrictions would go into effect, the Supreme Court declared on April 25 that the change would occur Aug. 31. Once enacted, providers will be limited to three patients and physicians won't be able to issue more than 25 cards per year.
Susan Sachsenmaier has been partially paralyzed for four years, after a horse-riding accident broke her neck in two places and damaged her spinal cord. Prior to the injury, she'd been a well-known clinical psychologist, educated in Montana and practicing in Wisconsin. She testified at trials and authored books such as The Handbook of Sex Offender Risk Assessment: Techniques for Legal Psychological Evaluation. She says she had dreams of being the kind of fit, active person who climbs Trapper Peak at age 80.
Since the accident, Sachsenmaier has limited use of her hands, requires a wheelchair to get around and needs round-the-clock personal assistance. She's spent most of the past four years in a total fog of opiates, she says, trying to handle the painful muscle spasms she experiences as result of her spinal cord injury. She describes the pains of neuropathy as "lightning strikes."
"I was so dubious that there could be a cannabis strain that could affect my body and not my head," she says. "Everything else that I take that affects my body comes with great cost to my brain. I have to give up part of my brain for everything I take, to help my body. The anti-spasms I take fog my brain and the codeine is the worst of all."
- photo by Cathrine L. Walters
She'd tried the "smokable stuff," she says, but found that it didn't do much for her. It's also not an everyday practical solution, since she needs help with tasks as basic as blowing her nose.
Last year, Sachsenmaier moved back to Montana from Wisconsin and got her medical marijuana card. A few months after, she met with a cannabis provider who recommended a tincture of a specific strain that could reduce her daily pains without dulling her mind. It only takes a few seconds for her caretaker to administer a dropper of it orally, as needed every few hours for pain. Sachsenmaier says it's saved her life.
"On the tincture, oh my god," she says, with tears in her eyes, "suddenly I could be a person. That's what people don't get, is that I wasn't a person before. I couldn't find myself."
Sachsenmaier openly sobs at the prospect of losing access to her medication and being forced to go back on opiates. But, she says, she found medical marijuana before getting her card, even in Wisconsin, where it's illegal, and says she'll figure out a way to access marijuana even if Montana changes its laws. Her biggest concern is losing access to her provider and the specific strain that's worked best for her.
"I'm a person who's spent her entire life in uppermost law enforcement and here I am trying to figure out how to buy pot illegally," she says. "If they think I can't get it here if they illegalize it—what idiots."