After more than a decade of haphazard regulation, Montana’s medical market is about to undergo a huge shift that could provide long-sought stability and potentially grow the state’s industry exponentially. But the rising tide might not raise all boats.
Previously, patients were stuck with one dispensary. Now they have 235 to choose from.
On Tuesday, June 2, Montana’s policy of “tethering” will come to an end. Tethering was the state’s policy that required each of the state’s roughly 33,000 patients to register with and purchase medical marijuana from a single dispensary. Patients had no ability to shop elsewhere.
Many medical cannabis providers are thrilled about the opportunities that untethering will bring—namely the potential for hundreds or even thousands of new customers. Yet the reform also runs the risk of pushing smaller providers out of business.
“I think it will be beneficial for patients and for providers that can withstand the freedom of the opening market,” Tayln Lang, the owner of Heirloom Remedies in Victor, told Leafly. “I’m hoping to be one of those last men standing after the dust settles.”
What this means for patients
Starting Tuesday morning, current Montana cardholders can shop at any of the state’s 235 dispensaries. As always, patients should bring their valid state MMJ registry identification card, government ID, and cash for the purchase.
Be prepared for an extra step in their shopping experience: In order to ensure that a patient has not already reached their monthly limit, their account will be verified upon arrival through the state’s seed-to-sale tracking program. Furthermore, patients should be aware of the state’s conversion rates: five ounces of flower—the monthly limit—is equal to 3,600 mg (THC content) of edibles or infused products, or 36 grams of concentrate.
COVID considerations while shopping
Montana has one of the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the country, and the state began re-opening in late April. But in light of the ongoing pandemic, state officials have added several temporary directives to the medical marijuana program as safety precautions. Those include:
- Daily purchasing limits are temporarily suspended; registered cardholders may purchase their entire monthly limit at once.
- The monthly purchase limit of five ounces remains in effect.
- Cardholder renewals won’t require an updated physician’s statement.
- Montanans who are not currently registered can obtain a physician’s statement via telemedicine.
- Providers may offer curbside pickup to registered patients.
Wojcik, of Sacred Sun, pointed out that the temporary lifting of daily limits may be an advantage for providers with a lot of backstock. “There may be providers that don’t have enough product on hand to accommodate these changes,” she said. “This opens things up for patients to explore their options within the communities they reside in or beyond.”
A long road to untethering
The implementation of untethering marks the end of a long and complicated legal process. While Montana was actually one of the first states to legalize medical marijuana, in 2004, the industry has since existed in a near-constant state of upheaval. Dispensaries have been pushed to the brink of collapse by prohibitionist legislators, suffered federal raids, and been hindered by tethering.
Montana legislators sought to stabilize the program when they passed SB 265, the untethering bill, in May 2019. Yet complications have persisted. Earlier this year, the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DPHHS) proposed a series of largely impractical changes to the state’s medical program—including a near-total ban on advertising and a ban on out-of-state CBD—that threatened to undermine untethering. Those changes were met with a unanimous wave of frustration from providers during a forum held in the state capital of Helena.
The Department eventually reneged on the CBD ban, but the advertising ban remains largely intact.
“I think the state is still overreaching in their zealousness to keep advertising under wraps,” Lang, of Heirloom Remedies, said. “Especially during the pandemic, people need to be able to do research before they’re heading out into the world to make their purchases.”
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Providers preparing for big changes
Medical marijuana providers across Montana are preparing for big changes. Emmie Purcell, co-owner of Greenhouse Farmacy in Missoula, has a multi-pronged strategy in place. “We’re trying to forecast what competitors are going to be doing and the niches that we can fill,” she told Leafly. One of those niches is edibles. She built an on-site kitchen and recently launched a separate company, High Road Edibles, that makes both THC- and CBD-infused products.
Additionally, she has extended store hours, primed her grow facility “for maximum capacity” and focused on preparing her team. “We’ve had more employee meetings in the past thirty days than in the past three years,” she said.
Lastly, she is bracing for logistic challenges with Metrc, the state-mandated seed-to-sale tracking program, which, she said, still contains lots of bugs. “It’s going to be a rude awakening in terms of the rollout,” she said.
“Metrc relies on the manual data input of the total THC content for infused products,” explained Joanna Wojcik, general manager of Sacred Sun Farms in Bozeman. “This will open door to human entry error. My greatest concern is that the patients always feel the brunt of the pitfalls of the program.”
Will smaller providers survive?
As patients gain the ability to be more selective in their purchases, smaller providers may struggle to survive. Missoula has the highest amount of dispensaries per capita of any city in the country, but some smaller providers operate out of their private homes or rented office space.
“I think some of the providers being kept on artificial life support because of tethering will go by the wayside,” Lang said. “I hate to see anyone’s business fail, but some of these businesses are going to. The market will sort itself out in the process.”
Purcell struck a more optimistic note. “A lot of providers are terrified right now,” she said. “They’ve poured out their heart and soul for their few patients. It’ll be a novelty for patients to check out different places, but I think smaller providers will be fine. It’ll come down to product quality and [operating] hours.”
Meanwhile, legalization signature drive ongoing
In the midst of untethering, Montana activists are also trying to gather enough signatures to get adult-use legalization on the ballot this November.
Providers and legalization advocates alike see the two reforms as separate entities.
“I don’t think untethering is going to have a big impact on the signature drive,” Pepper Petersen, the political director of New Approach Montana, the organization leading the charge for legalization, told Leafly. “If you’re not in the medical marijuana community already, you might not have a grasp of what’s going on or what untethering even means.”
Some providers are wary of the initiative, particularly in light of the state’s poor track record of managing its medical program and its proposed 20% sales tax on recreational cannabis. Yet everyone seems united in celebrating untethering, and the further normalization of cannabis in the Big Sky State.
“For us, it really is a celebration,” Purcell said, “because people now have a choice.”