May 10, 2010 in Region

Marijuana business in Montana targeted with firebomb

Billings City Council due to vote on 6-month ban on new stores
Associated Press
 
Larry Mayer photo

Billings police and firefighters investigate the scene of a firebomb that was thrown through the front door of Montana Therapeutics, a medical marijuana store, early Monday, May 10, 2010.
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HELENA — Someone threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of a Billings medical marijuana business early Monday and spray-painted “NOT IN OUR TOWN” on its storefront, the second such act in as many days, authorities said.

The attempted arsons come as the Billings City Council is scheduled to vote Monday night on whether to place a six-month moratorium on new medical marijuana businesses opening in the city.

A rock was used to break the glass of Montana Therapeutics at 4:30 a.m. Monday, and a beer bottle filled with gasoline was lit and thrown inside, Billings police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said. A passer-by reported the fire.

Fire crews quickly put out the small blaze, Deputy Fire Marshal Trevor Schilling said.

A day earlier, at about 5 a.m., surveillance video showed two young men spray-painting “NOT IN OUR TOWN” on the front of Big Sky Patient Care, and then throw a rock through the front door followed by a flaming bottle, Big Sky owner David Couch said.

Nobody was injured in either instance.

Trevor McFarren, co-owner of Montana Therapeutics, said his business provides medical marijuana for about 50 people and has operated since January. Until now, the business has never had a problem, a complaint or even a bad phone call, he said.

McFarren said he believes Monday’s council vote has something to do with the timing of the act that he estimated caused $2,500 in damage.

“I’m sure they’re trying to fuel the fire about (the vote),” he said. “It’s more of an attack on the community than anything.”

Couch also said he has not had any complaints about his business since it opened in April. He declined to say how many patients Big Sky has.

“If anything good comes out of this, it will probably be a desire for more education in the general public,” he said.

Police have no suspects, Iffland said. Surveillance video may have captured what happened, but the building’s owners do not want to release the video to police until they speak to their attorney, Iffland said.

Detectives were investigating whether the acts were done by opponents of medical marijuana businesses ahead of the council’s vote or by business rivals, Iffland said.

The medical marijuana trade has boomed in Montana since the Obama administration last year said it would not prosecute medical marijuana cases. More than 4,800 new patients were added to the state’s registry in the first three months of this year, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

As of March 31, the state had some 12,081 patients and about 2,800 registered “caregivers” providing them with medical marijuana. That compares with about 800 registered patients in 2008.

Montana is different from other states in that it has no medical marijuana dispensaries. Instead, each patient is required to designate a caregiver who provides that patient with medical marijuana. Caregivers are usually small operators who are hard to track — about 56 percent registered with the state have only one designated patient. Only 109 of the 2,800 caregivers have 20 or more patients.

The growth has exposed holes in the state medical marijuana law that was passed by ballot initiative in 2004, and the state Legislature is hearing recommendations from law enforcement, cities, schools and the medical marijuana community on changes when it goes back into session in January.

Meanwhile, Montana’s cities and towns are testing different ways to deal with commercial growers. Some have banned them from their city limits; others are seeking ways to regulate them like other businesses. Several cities have imposed temporary moratoriums on new businesses, such as the one Billings’ leaders are considering, while they figure out a permanent solution.

Billings has issued more than 80 business licenses for medical marijuana stores. The council will decide Monday night whether to put a six-month ban on new stores opening within city limits and whether to close those operating within 1,000 feet of a school or a park.

Councilman Jim Ronquillo said the council is likely to pass the six-month ban, and then another one if a solution has not been found by then.

“We want to kick it back for six months and see if we can cool these issues down,” Ronquillo said.

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