Shouts of protest filled the streets of downtown Missoula on Saturday as medical marijuana advocates, angered by the raids of cannabis facilities across Montana last week, rallied in support of their right to use marijuana for medical purposes.
“DEA, go away!”
It was a line repeated over and over as more than a hundred people wielding signs that read “No Plant Left Behind,” “We are not criminals” and “Feds Hands Off My Meds” marched from Caras Park to the Missoula County Courthouse and back. There were families, veterans, college students and medical marijuana caregivers. At times, a faint scent of marijuana drifted through the crowd.
Doug Chyatte, founder of Montanans for Responsible Legislation and one of the rally organizers, used a bullhorn to encourage people to “come out of the shadows and into the streets” – a message of standing up in support of medical marijuana.
The rally was in response to federal agents on Monday issuing 26 search warrants on medical marijuana shops and producers in a handful of cities across Montana, seizing cash and plants. The raids generated fear and anger in an industry that’s under the microscope of state lawmakers working to regulate the industry.
Montana legalized the medical use of marijuana in 2004, and the number of cannabis patients and providers soared after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo in 2009 stating that the prosecution of medical marijuana programs in states where it’s legal is not an effective use of the use of federal resources.
Dozens of medical marijuana caregivers destroyed their plants in a panic following last week’s raids, said Chyatte, who called the raids a “political move” and a “scare tactic” – the most vocal medical cannabis distributors were the ones targeted, he said.
The rally aimed to send a message to state and federal officials that medical marijuana advocates are not backing down and they’re not scared.
Drawing guns on people watering plants is wrong, said Katrina Farnum, of Garden Mother Herbs and an MRL member. “It’s not a time to divide; it’s a time to stand together,” she said.
Chyatte referred to the raids as “a war that we didn’t choose but a war that no doubt ended up at our front doors.”
“I know many of you are angry,” Chyatte said. “I’m angry, too. But today, we stand united … Without embarrassment or shame, we will demand equal rights. This community has had enough of the hatred and bigotry.”
Last week’s raids coincided with state lawmakers in Helena taking executive action on House Speaker Mike Milburn’s bill to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law passed as a referendum by voters in 2004. There are other bills circulating through the Legislature that would regulate the industry.
One of the places targeted last week was Montana Cannabis, which is where retiree Bob Wolf of the Plains area used to shop. Now, he has to search for another provider. That’s one of the reasons he decided to join the rally on Saturday.
“Believe me, it’s not dope,” said Wolf, who says he suffers from spinal arthritis. “It’s medicine.”
Chyatte encouraged the crowd to come out about their medical marijuana use to family, friends and employers and register to vote. The rally generated a large number of honks from supporters driving by on Higgins and Broadway avenues.
MRL is calling for the resignation of Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir for testifying as a Missoula city representative in support of the bill to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law – a move that later drew criticism from Missoula City Council members. His testimony was “incredibly inappropriate,” Chyatte said.
Subsequently, the City Council on Monday will vote on a resolution that would show the city’s opposition to House Bill 161 to repeal the state’s medical marijuana law. Currently the bill remains stuck in the Senate Judiciary committee on a tie vote.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at [email protected].