K.M. Cholewa: A Life Gone to Pot

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In spring of 2009, I had just finished writing my novel and just finished a legislative session. I’d worked as lobbyist for twenty years and had been claiming each legislative session was my last since 2001. At the same time, at the coffee counter at which I’d been a regular going on for at least 12 years, a new conversation was cropping up among the usual commentaries on politics and the news.

Medical marijuana. Montana had passed a citizens’ initiative in 2004 allowing for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. Though I don’t remember it, I do vote, and I assume I voted for it because it’s something I would have voted for. It hadn’t made any impression on me, however. Even as someone who worked in politics, it wasn’t on my radar. But in the spring of 2009, I found my middle age coffee counter compadres often talking about getting their “cards” and going to marijuana stores – dispensaries – and legally buying and using marijuana.

Because of my background, I was interested in what the state statute said. What was the law supporting this phenomenon? The profile of medical marijuana was on the rise in Montana, in part, because of an entrepreneurial sociopath who had started a traveling clinic that made the availability of doctor referrals more visible.

These clinics, though, were card mills, which isn’t to say they didn’t also help people who could benefit from medical marijuana.

Having just finished writing my novel Shaking Out the Dead, my mind was on scan for the next. The phenomenon of medical marijuana struck me as something that would make for a good background for a story.

So, the research began. I went to a clinic. Not the circus ones being run by the sociopath, but something more dignified. I called the doctor I had met with two weeks later and asked him to lunch. Turned out, he had had a marijuana testing lab being run by a Ph.D. chemist that tested the “caregivers’” (medical marijuana growers) marijuana samples and provided information about the balance of the different cannabinoids in the plant, some psychoactive, some not. CBD (cannabidial, non-psychoactive) and THC (tetrohydrocannabinol, psychoactive) were of primary interest at the time when it came to medical applications. The doctor was also just the next week bringing in a cannabis (marijuana) plant expert from Holland, also a Ph.D., Dr. Arno Hazekamp.

I was able to meet with the two Ph.D.s one afternoon as well as attending Hazekamp’s public presentation as well as informal social events surrounding his visit. I formed a friendship with the doctor whose clinic I had gone to and started learning about the human cannabinoid system, which is the body’s system that takes in and responds to the cannabinoids in marijuana, in addition to the cannabinoids the body makes itself and the synthetics ones used in studies and in drugs such as Marinol.

As I like to put it, I was a political professional, but I came to marijuana politics through the science door.

Then, I started to meet the growers, some through the lab, some through the growing political conversation. I went to national conferences. I started quietly investigating the quiet work going on planning the next legislative move. I started quietly uncovering who was quietly involved, the lawyers, the lobbyists, in this quasi-legitimate world where people, more often than not, were paid in cash.

The law, as it was, was not written for a burgeoning industry. It was written for a model of a Good Samaritan growing marijuana for a few sick people. But between the traveling clinics and Obama’s Attorney General’s, Eric Holder, announcement that they would not prosecute medical marijuana providers in states that allowed for medical use and were following state laws, the number of users and businesses exploded, some reputable, some not.

As to whether certain business practices and protocols were “legal,” the answer, frequently, was that “the law doesn’t say you can’t.” Thus, simple statutes were used, some claimed “abused,” to support a complex production and delivery system.

A girl needs to eat. So, I ended up lobbying in the 2011 legislative session for the Alliance for Cannabis Science representing doctors, testing labs, and some businesses doing innovative things, such as energy efficient growing. The group was formed to have a “science voice” at the legislature, with the hope it would help foster legitimacy. But I wasn’t the only lobbyist. Early in the session, it appeared the political battle would be about how new regulations would favor some business models over others, the internal battle moving from who had the best weed to who can pass the law that supports their business model at the expense of others’.

But the movement, it turns out, was naive. That wasn’t the political battle. As the Montana Senate Judiciary committee voted on legislation to repeal medical marijuana in Montana altogether, simultaneously, federal raids broke out all over the state. Coincidence? Nobody thought so.

Repeal did pass but was vetoed by the Governor. However, the legislature passed an additional law that dismantled the medical marijuana program in Montana and the number of patients dropped from near 30,000 to 8000. There would be no program at all if several of the law’s provisions hadn’t been enjoined temporarily by the courts, which is where it still sits today, waiting on a Montana Supreme Court decision.

The science was amazing. The competition was cut throat at all levels. There was a lot of money at stake and in the process of wading into this world my eyes were opened to the insidiousness of the prison-industrial complex and the financially-driven component of the criminal justice system and the War on Drugs.

I dove in for the story and ended up one of the characters. Isn’t it the way for writers, particularly of fiction? In a way, a writer is always undercover, straddled between life and a meta-life, the story life, and wading into situations and circumstances for the sake of the story, the story to live and the story to tell.

I used to joke that marijuana was addictive, as a subject. The science, the history, the politics, the economics. It’s not a joke when I say that wading into the issue changed the way I see many things. The unforeseen risks of being involved, even at a political level, have marked me. There have been consequences. But I also found what I was looking for.

A story.

Kate Cholewa author photo

K.M. Cholewa is author of Shaking Out the Dead. Her writing on marijuana science and politics has appeared at Salon. Her current novel-in-progress reflects her experiences working in marijuana politics.

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