Over recent years, it’s been a slow-going back and forth for medical marijuana in Montana, but since voters and the courts approved medical marijuana last year, a new dispensary has set up shop near Libby and they’re looking to stay.
Many dispensaries across the state have opened, shut down and reopened again because of the changing laws in Montana, and Libby’s Alternative Relief is no different.
John Meister and Barbie Turner recently opened their medical marijuana dispensary just outside city limits — a business venture they attempted once before in 2010. After two years, they decided to move because their location was close to a school.
Their new location sits far away from any school, and also allowed them to dodge the recent city ordinance that banned medical marijuana dispensaries for 90 days.
The bright yellow building used to be the office of a used car sale lot. With grease stains from floor to ceiling, January was a long month of cleanup, Turner said.
“There were air hoses coming from the wall,” Tuner said before gesturing to the floor, “this was all grease. “It was really nifty.”
Now, the inside has a more-appropriate green color scheme.
As people walk in, a sign reads, “Plant Smiles - Grow Giggles - Harvest Love,” a sign that Turner found a few years ago that she felt was perfect.
For decades, marijuana in the U.S. has been labeled as a dangerous and harmful drug. From early childhood, children used to be taught never to smoke marijuana.
In most states, including Montana, using marijuana recreationally is still illegal.
This is the same drug that Meister is selling legally to sick people, who he said are mostly over 50 years old.
“I think a lot of people, when they come in here, they’re expecting to see people sitting around smoking weed, and that’s not what’s going on,” Meister said. “I want people comfortable coming here, and I think 90 percent of people, their first time coming here is uncomfortable. They feel shamed by it. I try to tell them, ‘everybody stands in line at the pharmacy, this is no different.’ We are not doing anything illegal here, but it’s just the way it’s been looked at for a long time — it’s been looked down upon.”
Despite the dramatic shift and ongoing debate, Meister said he’s received very little negativity from people.
“I have elderly neighbors next to where I grow, and they get gardening advice from me,” Meister laughed.
In fact, after being open for under a month Meister said he already has a steady stream of clients.
So much in fact, he’s already looking to hire up to five employees in June.
“Everyday, I get five-six people in here with a million questions on how they get a card and where they will go,” Meister said.
The large amount of clientele doesn’t surprise Meister — marijuana is prescribed to cancer patients, and Libby has an uniquely high rate of cancer compared with other small towns.
“It’s the cancer capital of Montana. I think it’s probably the cancer capital of anywhere. It’s everywhere,” Meister said, standing behind his counter in the business.
For the Libby asbestos victims who have ongoing lung diseases, he notes that marijuana isn’t just smoked — just to his left, lotion, salves and edible cookies and candies sit, each contain some properties of marijuana.
Marijuana is used to treat a variety of symptoms, including pain, loss of sleep, nausea, vomiting, stress, neurological disorders, loss of appetite and many more.
“Marijuana is the only prescription that won’t kill you,” Meister said. “You can’t overdose on it, you can’t take too much of it. There are no horrible side effects. That’s what draws a lot of people to it.”
Plus, Meister said, it’s organic.
On the customer’s side of the counter, the marijuana products at the store are glassed-off so no one can reach over and steal the items.
Meister stands at the counter from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. every weekday. As of now, he has a sort-of farm-to-market operation. He grows, processes and sells everything he has. All Turner can do is paperwork.
“Nobody dispenses medication but me, nobody grows but me,” he said. “I do every step of it myself.”
Meister can attest to the benefits of the drug — having chronic pain himself, he uses marijuana to help relax his pain.
“I’m never pain free, but [marijuana] makes it tolerable,” Meister said.
That’s the whole reason he became a provider. After seeing the benefits himself and seeing a need in the community — all the pieces came together.
Beyond cancer and chronic pain, Meister has quite a few PTSD patients who are prescribed to treat nightmares and anxiety among other symptoms
“Just all kinds of PTSD symptoms that just reaks havoc on these guys,” Meister said. “It helps them out a little bit. To hear, ‘I’m not having nightmares and I can sleep through the night,’ from someone who has nightmares all the time, that’s a big deal. I know it would be for me if I couldn’t sleep at night.”
After they temporarily closed their first dispensary, the laws changed and took many of their clients’ cards or providers away. In short time, a few of Meister’s clients were arrested trying to smuggle marijuana back from Washington.
With shifting, and constrictive laws, many people who use marijuana to treat certain ailments have been waiting, even breaking the law, to have access to their medicine.
Becoming a provider wasn’t easy, and although demand is high in Libby, Meister said that it’s also difficult for patients to get prescribed.
In order to be prescribed medical marijuana in Montana a person must be diagnosed with cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, cachexia, severe chronic pain, intractable nausea or vomiting, epilepsy or an intractable seizure disorder, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, painful peripheral neuropathy, a central nervous system disorder or post traumatic stress disorder.
If diagnosed, the patient must obtain legitimate medical records or documentation from their primary care physician describing the diagnosis of their qualifying condition. They also have to fill out paperwork and register as a cardholder.
Meister said that he also went through a long process to become a provider, including fingerprinting, paperwork and background checks. He expects his future to have to go through a similar process.
“It’s a lot, but I see it work,” Meister said. “I see people eating and sleeping. People that are wasting away to nothing who are happy because they can eat and sleep again.”