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New law for an old drug

Medical marijuana caregivers share their stories in part five of the series

Montana's medical marijuana law allows patients to assign themselves caregivers — someone, 18 or older, "who agrees to take responsibility for managing the wellbeing of a person with respect to the medical use of marijuana." In this article, three local caregivers explain what they do and what their jobs mean to them.

 

Camille

“I like to sleep well,” Camille said, explaining that she, like a good business owner, wants to know that her product is not only high in quality but also that it satisfies her customers. 

Camille and her business partner Anna (not their real names) are medical marijuana caregivers in Lake County. By sleeping well Camille means she and her business partner grow “the cleanest, purest, best (medical marijuana) available.” 

And they help a lot of people, she added. 

“We operate,” Camille said, continuing, “in a fashion that law enforcement or state regulators can come at any time. We don’t overgrow.”

Medical marijuana caregivers are allowed to grow six plants for each patient for whom they care for. Still patient demand outweighs the supply, she said.

Of the two business partners, Camille is the gardener.

She grew up on a farm where her mom had a huge garden and the family raised their own chickens, pigs and beef. It follows that as Camille grew up, married and had her own family, she became interested in herbs, herbal medicines and tinctures, and raised her own herbs. 

After Montana legalized medical marijuana in 2004, a friend kept trying to interest Camille in becoming a medical marijuana caregiver and raising medical marijuana. 

Finally Camille capitulated since she was looking for a way to keep things together after a divorce and decided to give growing medical marijuana a try. Still, it's not a vocation she expected to enter.

“Medical marijuana is not an industry I ever saw myself in," Camille said. 

She teamed up with Anna, who’s more of a businesswoman. Camille said when she started growing medical marijuana she didn’t know how powerful the drug was, how many applications there were for medical marijuana or the scope. 

“It’s a full time job,” Camille said, “And very labor intensive.”

The plants are grown in a soil-less, dirt-like medium and fed with organic nutrients Camille said. They use grow lights since growing methods are “all duplicating nature.” 

A “grow coach” with 30 years experience visited the partners to help them produce medical marijuana that is second to none. Marijuana plants can produce 6.7 crops per year, he explained. The plants flower for 40 to 70 days. The buds are harvested at peak potency, and it takes another 17 to 20 days to dry and prepare the medical marijuana. 

The partners grow Strong Indica, Indica, Indica Dominant, Strong Sativa, Sativa and Sativa Dominant. There are different strains of medical marijuana for different patients with different conditions or illnesses. And there are many ways medical marijuana can be accessed by patients besides smoking a joint, such as topicals, suppositories, oils, salves, soaps, massage oils, pastries, desserts, even chicken pot pie with mushrooms, the grow coach’s favorite, along with oil or butter extracts and tinctures.

Patients find Camille and Anna through referral from other patients. Doctors are reluctant to refer patients directly to caregivers because of ethical issues, Camille said.  

Although their patients must have a doctor’s referral to get their medical marijuana card from the state, Camille and Anna also require patients to complete a patient application and sign a patient contract.

Not all their patients are terminally ill. Some are people suffering from legitimate chronic conditions or who are worried about prescription drugs and their side effects. These patients want safe, effective medicine to improve the quality of their lives. 

The highest priced medical marijuana Anna and Camille grow costs $300 per ounce, and the price goes down from there, depending on the type of marijuana needed for a patient. The most medical marijuana the partners will give a patient is one ounce per week. Most patients are closer to one ounce every two weeks, according to Camille. 

They also have a rule not to accept friends as patients, even if the friends have medical marijuana cards.

Camille and Anna operate strictly within the law and pride themselves on their high quality medical marijuana, discretion and patient confidentiality, Camille emphasized.

-Berl Tiskus

 

Joe

There is no neon sign, no storefront. Nothing that resembles the coffee houses of Amsterdam and nothing that favors the cannabis clubs of San Francisco. 

Mission Springs Medical sits discreetly in a humble cabin on a 14-acre plot of marshy wetland. Joe, its proprietor who asked that his name be changed for the article, is proud of his chunk of muddy land that serves as the growing headquarters of his medical marijuana business. 

The road leading up to the cabin resembles a creek more than a method of commute, as the spring precipitation has left the dirt road in a state of disrepair. With a little maneuvering and four-wheel drive, medical marijuana patients find themselves following the windy road safely to the cabin.

The simple structure was built in 1936 and served as the home for a family of homesteaders with eight children. The one-room, 20-by-20-foot home has a few windows and log walls. With the exception of running water, electricity and a second story, the structure hasn’t changed from the time the homesteaders built it.   

Joe is dressed like the farmer he is. Overalls, boots and a baseball cap — normal attire for the man who spends most of his afternoons outside in the marsh, taking care of the area that he hopes will one day be a permaculture farm and a holistic healing center. 

Joe explains that though he wants his business to flourish and do well, he also has an innate desire to serve and help people who are suffering with various ailments.  

“You get into this business … and you realize that there are actually people out there who are dying,” Joe said. “Then you start to gain compassion.” 

Compassion and love are two characteristics that he exudes to all living creatures, including plants. He has a natural green thumb and has developed a lifetime love affair with horticulture. His historic cabin houses a plethora of marijuana plants that he diligently tends to. Hidden under tents and special lights, the plants are kept at appropriate temperatures and nursed along from seedling to mature adults, and finally dried marijuana. From seedling to usable marijuana it’s a four-month long process.  

“I don’t think that any man or law or government should be able to tell you that you cannot grow a natural plant for your own plant … as long as you are being responsible,” the horticulturist explains.

Country-western music plays as background music for the plants’ benefit and Joe said that he doesn’t know if it helps but it certainly can’t hinder the growing process. Joe sees the plants as individual organic creatures, capable of responding positively or negatively to the energy around them. And he is diligent in providing a healthy environment for his plants to flourish.

An early bird by nature, Joe arrives at the acreage at 8 a.m. after spending a couple of hours studying horticulture, the different strains of marijuana and catching up on his daily news at his home in Polson. 

He feeds his chickens first and then he heads indoors to “check on the girls.” He inspects the plants for signs of bug problems and pests and checks the nutrients levels in the plants.

Currently, he grows his plants in a hydroponic system — a method that allows the horticulturist to grow a plant in nutrient solutions in water, substituting little clay balls for soil. 

But soon he will switch to a soil medium which will be more labor intensive, but will yield more ounces per plant and will produce a better medicinal product. 

In the afternoon, he spends his time outside, toiling in the marshy area, preparing the land to become the farm he dreams it to be — the farm he hopes his small medical marijuana business will grow to support. 

Joe takes the term "caregiver" seriously. He has personally seen cannabis treat muscular sclerosis, anxiety disorders, cancer and behavioral disorders. Perhaps more poignantly, Joe himself has self-medicated with marijuana in order to overcome a debilitating addiction to Lortab. 

Lortab is a schedule II narcotic and is used as a pain reliever for moderate to severe pain. Joe began taking the highly addictive narcotic after he suffered a back injury while working. After the prescription ran out, the habit spiraled out of control. Joe was desperate in his search for opiates and eventually began buying the drug illegally on the street. 

“I had a huge problem with addictions,” Joe explained. “I was one of those functioning people. I still had a job and money.”

Despite the normality of his life on the outside, Joe’s family and personal life suffered tremendously. Even after an intervention with his family, he continued popping pills.

He kept the habit until one day he saw a river otter. The animal had a strange effect on the man, and the situation became clear to him.

“I saw the otter and I knew I was ready,” Joe said. “I quit the same day.” 

His family locked their beloved father, son, husband and brother in the cabin — the same cabin that now houses his business — and took away his keys and cell phone. Armed with cessation medication, marijuana and a strong family, Joe faced his opiate opponent and stomped out the burning flames of the addiction within weeks. 

“Marijuana was essential in helping me,” Joe said. “It was the key ingredient in getting me through those couple of weeks of withdrawals.”

After reaping the benefits of marijuana himself, Joe was open to the fact that marijuana could be beneficial to patients suffering from an array of illnesses and ailments. A friend of Joe’s spoke to him about treating his ailing wife with medical marijuana. The husband thought that perhaps the drug could calm his wife who was suffering with dementia. It was then that Joe seriously considered growing medical marijuana and selling it legally as a business.

“It got the wheels turning in my head, and I got to thinking. The laws are there and as the feds decided to layoff, why not?” Joe said.

Unfortunately, his friend’s wife died before she could be treated with medical marijuana, but Joe’s mind was made up— he could start a business, selling a product that he believed in and stay close to home while doing it.  
 
“What am I going to do?” Joe asks. “Work abroad where the jobs are? So my wife gets so lonely, she leaves me and my kid doesn’t know me?”
 
Joe understands the implications that the medical marijuana business may have to other members of the community who may not approve.  
 
In the relationship with his community, Joe is torn. On the one hand he would like to be open about his legal business, but on the other hand his family has a reputation to protect and a separate business to run. 
 
“I have another business that is sensitive,” Joe explained. “One in which people entrust certain things. If they are not a proponent (of medical marijuana) it could cost (my) business.”
 
Like other caregivers and medical marijuana patients, Joe wants the public to research medicinal marijuana and educate themselves on the purpose and the uses. 
 
“If they take the time to speak to educated people who may or may not be users, but who are approaching this endeavor in a scientific manner … they can make their own sensible decision,” Joe said. “I think there are going to be negative effects regardless.” 
 
Joe believes that if you put the substance in the hands of the compassionate and out of the hands of those who abuse the drug, the negative effects can be mitigated.  
 
“Like it or not, it’s here to stay. It’s going nowhere, and it’s getting bigger,” Joe said. “You can shut it down tomorrow, but it’s never going away. So why not deal with it in a sensible way?”
-Kate Haake
 
 
Dave
 
Starting a new business is never easy, especially in a ground-breaking industry as controversial as medical marijuana. But that’s just what Dave — he asked that his name be changed for the article — plans to do now that he’s been assigned as a caregiver for two family members.
 
“(Growing marijuana is) fun, and it’s a good way to make money on the side,” Dave said.
 
About a month ago, Dave became a registered caregiver for his aunt, who suffers from chronic pain from scoliosis and is a diabetic amputee, and cousin, who also has scoliosis.
 
Dave’s aunt’s doctor recommended that she talk to someone about using medical marijuana for pain, so she went to a clinic in Missoula and received her medical card in February. 
 
Since Dave’s aunt had to have her leg removed due to complications from diabetes, she’s not able to leave her home to pick up her medicine. But as her caregiver, Dave can go to a medical marijuana dispensary, sign a waiver and pick up his aunt’s medicine for her. He’ll continue to help his aunt in that way until he gets his own growing operation under way, which Dave hopes to do as soon as he finds a place with adequate space. 
 
“Mostly it’s just getting all the equipment,” he said. “Hopefully within the next month it’s going to be happening.”
 
When Dave got approved to be a caregiver, he spent more than 20 hours studying “everything you can learn about (growing marijuana).”
 
“You can get all the information you want on the Internet,” he added.
 
Dave’s preferred method, as with many caregivers, is hydroponics, where plants are grown in nutrient-filled water rather than dirt.
 
“Instead of using soil, you have your plants … in a reservoir,” Dave explained. 
 
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing with marijuana, because marijuana doesn’t grow like a regular plant,” he added. “You can look at it as a science project.”
 
Besides finding a place to start growing, Dave has a lot of startup expenses to think about. He’ll start out with 12 marijuana plants, six each for his aunt and cousin since they aren’t growing for themselves. Dave’s looking at an $800 to $1,200 cost to get started, he said, with seeds, lights, trays, nutrients and other equipment. And that’s not including the high maintenance expenses and monthly power bills — one 1,000-watt light costs $40 a month to run, he noted.
 
To make his business venture worthwhile, Dave will have to get several more patients. He plans to have enough space to grow for eight or 10 people — around 60 plants’ worth. 
“I don’t want to get too many (patients),” he said, adding that he’s not interested in care giving for young people who only have their medical cards for show. “It’s important to have good patients … There’s so many people care giving now; it’s competition.”
 
One way Dave plans to get an edge on the competition is by growing Afghan Kush, a high-yielding, extremely potent strain of cannabis. After extensive research, Dave decided Afghan Kush would be the best variety of marijuana to treat his aunt and cousin, and “there’s nothing around here like it,” he said.
 
“It’d be really good for people with severe chronic pain,” he explained. “You don’t want to give (patients) something that’s not going to help them.”
 
While he has yet to experience the pitfalls and hurdles that will inevitably come with running a medical marijuana business, Dave is already far enough along in the process to point out some flaws in the Medical Marijuana Act. Becoming a caregiver was easy, he said — almost too easy.
 
"There's not a big book of pamphlets for you to fill out," he said, explaining that a simple background check was all that was required of him once his aunt put his name down as her caregiver.
 
In other states, Dave noted, medical marijuana providers are required to keep accurate records and submit to state inspections, but Montana doesn't have that many regulations yet.
 
“They’ve got to structurize (sic) it,” he said.
-Melea Burke
 
(Editor's note: This article is part of a series that provides an overview of where medical marijuana use stands and how many questions remain about its use, sale and distribution, particularly within Lake County and the Flathead Indian Reservation. These articles will explore the effects medical marijuana is having in the community, as well as ask some of the questions that remain unanswered.)

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