Cannabis, the most frequently used illicit drug in the United States, is ubiquitous in American culture. Its use is especially widespread amongst younger generations and is a large facet of college life for many students. And yet, cannabis’s history with the law in the United States is long, complex and ever-changing. Today, the legality of the drug can vary dramatically from state to state, further nuanced by the federal government’s prohibitive stance on the substance. Despite these complexities, cannabis use remains common.
Cannabis is playing a greater and greater role in the world of medicine. For people like Stephanie Sperry, quality medical cannabis is their passion, life and trade. Sperry is the store manager for Spark1, a local medical cannabis dispensary. “We provide access to cannabis at an industry standard that is really prevalent throughout the rest of the nation,” Sperry said of Spark1. “Things [in Montana] are really not where they are in the rest of the country and we strive to have consistency and quality of product as our main goals.”
Spark1 helps users of medical cannabis responsibly obtain and use cannabis under the law. “Cannabis is such a varied medicine, it can affect individuals in such different ways across the board,” Sperry said. The key is to “know what it is they are seeking from their medicine, and try to match their needs with the right product.” This is a process, however, that is not initiated by Spark1, but by a potential patient themselves.
The first step is to obtain a medical marijuana card through the state. Current Montana law specifies a list of conditions that qualify cannabis as an option for treatment, and any doctor can prescribe cannabis, although many choose not to. A doctor that is willing to prescribe cannabis often acts as a specialist from a referral or after a visit to a general practitioner. As a feature of their business, Spark1 facilitates the initial doctor’s visit, handles application paperwork and acts as a liaison to the state. “We make sure that everything is being done through the confines of the law,” Sperry said.
In the state of Montana, you can only be signed up with one provider. This benefits the patient by ensuring the provider has a personal relationship with the patient. The flipside of the law is that the patient doesn’t have access to a similar scope of choices as they would in other markets. That said, there are several medical cannabis providers in Bozeman.
The Changing Law
In November, 2016, Montana voters chose to change the way the state of Montana views medicinal cannabis, affecting users and providers like Spark1. Prior to the vote, providers were restricted to only three patients. Now, that restriction has been lifted, which allows business like Spark1 to realistically operate. Additionally, Montana law now calls for mandatory product testing through the state, alongside product transparency, similar to policies of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “That’s something we are personally really excited about. We want to provide a consistent product, and that’s something we are proud of,” Sperry said.
All of the changes are soundly beneficial to dispensaries, but there are some negatives. For example, medical cannabis providers are currently not allowed to advertise their sales product under the new law. “We stay completely away from advertising now. We operate entirely by word-of-mouth,” Sperry said.
There are, of course, some issues between the way the state of Montana and the United States government view cannabis. Under federal law, cannabis is a Schedule I controlled substance. The federal government’s view of substances under this classification is that they have no accepted medical use, in stark contrast with the opinion of many professionals nationwide, including Sperry. “It has this great medical value. It’s terrible that it gets overlooked or pushed aside. Some of the medical benefits are undeniable,” Sperry said.
Sperry said that current conflicts with the federal government are relatively low. “At this point, the difference between federal and state regulations doesn’t affect us as much as you would think,” Sperry said. The greatest risk is uncertainty under a Trump administration, whose stance on cannabis use could be drastically harsher than the hands-off approach of the Obama administration.
Looking forward, Sperry made an argument for expanding the legality of cannabis use as a recreational drug in Montana. “We are in a medical place right now, but the fact is that cannabis is safer than anything else people can consume recreationally. There are no overdoses associated with it, there are no deaths associated with it.” Sperry continued, “Adults are going to choose ways to recreate and to enjoy themselves. It is very unfair, I think, to take a safe option for recreation out of people’s hands and, even more so, ruin lives by incarcerating people for something like cannabis, which is pretty victim-free when you come down to it.”
Complications on Campus
Montana State University’s stance on cannabis allows no room for medicinal use. “The Student Code of Conduct is pretty clear: cannabis use is prohibited by federal law, and as a land-grant institution which receives federal funding, [the university] must abide by federal policy. Marijuana use, whether ingested or smoked, on or off-campus, is a violation of our Code of Conduct,” Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct Ed McKenna said.
Item number 625 of the MSU Conduct Code prohibits the “use, possession, manufacture, distribution or sale of narcotics or dangerous drugs, except as expressly permitted by law or University policy.” This policy includes the use of medicinal cannabis, even off-campus. “If a student has a medical card and they are off-campus, they’re likely not going to be cited by the police, but it can still be considered a violation of our Code of Conduct, if a referral came to us,” McKenna explained.
If a student is cited by the authorities for cannabis use off-campus, the Office of the Dean of Students will inevitably become aware of the citation. “We are aware of every arrest of a student that happens in Bozeman,” McKenna said. “We enjoy a close relationship with the Bozeman Police Department.”
Considering the total student population, reports of drug use in violation of Item 625 are low. The number of drug violation cases brought to the Dean of Students’ Office in the 2015-16 academic year was 422. At the time of printing, the number for the 2016-17 academic year is 420. Although these offenses are not exclusive to cannabis use, “at least 95 percent of those are marijuana. Out of that number a smaller percentage, around 140 of those were found responsible with a preponderance of evidence,” McKenna said.
The consequences for repeat offenses are severe. “After three violations, we’re talking about whether or not you should be a student here,” McKenna said.
For Further Information
1008 North Seventh Avenue, Suite D
Montana Cannabis Industry Association
Montana Marijuana Program
Office of the Dean of Students & MSU Conduct Code