8 minute read

Erin Bolster: Connecting Community Through Cannabis

By Molly Thorvilson

Tears begin to well up in Erin Bolster’s eyes as she recalls an emotional experience, one that has now become nearly an everyday encounter. She takes a deep breath and says, “She called me crying the next day.” Erin pauses. Tears begin to lightly stream down her cheeks. She swallows and continues, her voice beginning to soften, “She said, ‘I just had the first full night of sleep in a long, long time, and I used to put people in jail for this.’” Erin says the woman on the other end of the line was sobbing with competing senses of relief and guilt. She was a retired police officer that became desperate for pain control while fighting breast cancer. Against cannabis, but as a last resort for relief, she turned to Erin’s business, Tamarack Cannabis, to help ease the pain. “She never tried it until she was desperate and now knows it’s a safe medicine, and its recreational effects are pleasant and mild. It totally changed her perspective.” Erin has heard this story and others like it many times, but each time tales of skeptics-turned-supporters and healing “miracles” still tug on her emotions. “I know there are a lot of good people out there and they work against cannabis because they don’t know. They just don’t know. Sometimes it takes a personal experience for them— something that happens to their spouse, their child, and they end up finding out that it’s safe and they were wrong, and they change their minds.”

Erin Bolster, owner of Tamarack Dispensary

Erin Bolster, owner of Tamarack Dispensary


It seems in Montana, though, there aren’t a whole lot of minds left to change. At least not according to the voting public. In a year full of division, Montana voters, no matter what side of the political spectrum, largely agreed on only one issue: cannabis. They spoke loud and clear on their November 2020 ballots, telling lawmakers to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Constitutional initiatives 118 and 190 were passed by 58 and 57 percent, effectively legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana in Montana for adults 21 and older. That’s roughly the same percentage of Montana voters that chose to support former President Donald Trump on their ballots. “Cannabis is bipartisan. It’s one of the very few things that is truly bipartisan. Montanans passed cannabis by an overwhelming majority and also voted heavily Republican,” Erin says. “A lot of businesses see one type of customer or another, and we see everybody; it’s a very unifying thing.”

Polling numbers on a national scale also reflect this level of bipartisan clarity. “The whole country wants this. Cannabis numbers are polling higher than any other industry among the melting pot of America. You see a unifying factor of it being a good plant.” Erin says many patients at the Tamarack Cannabis storefront tell her how the plant has helped keep them calm and sane during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other highstress events of the past year. “Cannabis has been a very stabilizing factor for a lot of people during this very unstable time. It makes you stop and slow down and realize we’re all in the same boat.”

Unfortunately, even large polling margins aren’t enough to put the Big Sky State in the clear for all recreational cannabis sales to begin in 2022, as voters would have it. The cannabis industry has long been under attack by Montana politicians. Erin has witnessed and fought multiple attempts by the state to repeal the will of the people, and every time she has stepped up to the plate to fight for Montanan’s rights in any way she can. She has dedicated thousands of volunteer hours fighting to keep the cannabis community alive across the state and can be largely credited for writing the current laws that set the industry standards for medical cannabis patients today— all for an industry that is still federally illegal.

Members of the Tamarack Dispensary Team

Members of the Tamarack Dispensary Team


Montana was one of the earliest states to approve medical cannabis sales back in 2004, but the law didn’t stick as easily as it was enacted. Erin first invested in Tamarack Cannabis in 2011, and just as quickly as she jumped aboard her new, longawaited business venture, the political cannabis rollercoaster ride started. Erin buckled up with the Montana Cannabis Industry Association (MTCIA) and slapped lawmakers with a court battle that lasted half a decade. Despite the legal battle, Erin wasn’t gun-shy about her ability to help push cannabis forward and ended up buying the rest of Tamarack Cannabis in 2014. Then, just a few short months before Election Day 2016, lawmakers took away the will of the people with a “repeal and disguise.” Effective immediately, medical providers could only help three patients total, and they were not allowed to accept money. Determined to continue helping her patients and dedicated to providing safe, effective medicine, Erin allowed each of her employees to become a single provider for the dispensary’s sickest patients, at the business’s expense. “We had some cancer patients, some epilepsy patients, some severe wasting syndrome patients, and other chronic illnesses. They can’t imagine life without cannabis. They use it to eat, they use it to sleep. So, we invested in those patients for several months.”

The ruling came as no shock to Erin, and as a calculated and passionate woman, she was already making her next move. “It was do or die,” she says. Erin had spent the last few years working on new legislation in hopes of landing a bettercrafted medical law on the ballot in November 2016, which is our current law today. “While we kept them in court for many years, we were busy drafting a new initiative to save medical marijuana,” she says. “We also did not want to rip 35,000 patients away from their medicine. We have all these people that found relief from this one solution, and you’re going to tell them, never mind. You don’t get it anymore,” Erin says, perplexed. To help alleviate concern and build a model that fit her own high standards, Erin remained close to initiative 182. She ensured that it provided new regulations protecting both product and patient safety and promoted a system for licensed cannabis businesses versus individuals serving as sole providers, allowing safe, medicinal cannabis sales in Montana. “Up until 182, there was no regulation on how this product was produced and no quality assurance testing,” Erin says. “I felt that while we were hoping to pass this law, we had to make sure that it helped patients, but also to put other safeguards into the law, like testing for mold or pesticides.”

We're a normal business; we should be treated like a normal business.

Erin was not only instrumental in building the framework of Bill 182, but she also did much of the heavy lifting to obtain the signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot the following fall. She dedicated countless volunteer hours as one of the top advocates in the state while signature gathering and raising funds, and also donated about a hefty portion of funds raised for advertising Bill 182. Additionally, Erin paid her employees to canvass the state, gathering signatures and collecting donations. Tamarack Cannabis store manager, Mary Keehfuss, gathered the most signatures in support of 182 than any other gatherer in the state. “We would help organize meetings across the state, in Bozeman, Missoula, and rural areas, and we would network at those meetings and coordinate to mobilize when we were ready to start getting the signatures we needed,” Mary says. Other female employees of Tamarack printed thousands of flyers and informational documents in the old storefront, which was suddenly serving as a hub for volunteers in support of the medical cannabis fight. Reflecting on the “campaign days,” Mary says Erin was constantly there to help with anything she needed, from standing in Whitefish gathering signatures to taking care of Mary’s dogs while she was on the road, busy coordinating further signature-gathering efforts. “Erin has always cultivated an environment that allows women that work for her to succeed and thrive and grow. I’m very blessed and lucky to work for somebody as supportive as her,” Mary says.


Erin has long prepped Tamarack Cannabis for the day of recreational sales to come. Her staff is already growing, now at 30 members, 17 of which are women. Endearing tales from longtime employees display Erin’s priority to support a positive, healthy work culture— something that very clearly translates to the storefront environment and to her patients and their experiences. “It’s a place where people can come and be supported, and we’re going to listen to them and we’re not going to judge them. We take all types, and we are all types,” she says.

“It’s always been my goal,” Erin pauses and looks up to the popcorn ceiling in her office, settled in the lower level of a century-old farmhouse, known by some as the old storefront. She adjusts to rephrase her statement. Seemingly realizing the rudimentary reality of her thought, she starts again and very succinctly says, “We’re a normal business; we should be treated like a normal business.”

Anticipating legal recreational sales in Montana in 2022, Erin says there is still work left to do. “The fight is not over. There are still people that are anti-marijuana. They are still fighting to restrict access to marijuana, and we will continue to fight them. But I have strong hope for the future that it’s going to keep getting better.” Erin’s optimism shining, she smiles and says, “The world is getting better, and I want to help it get better.” Some might be doubtful of the world actually getting better as we’re all enduring a waning global pandemic and very real political and racial turmoil across the nation. Her optimism shrouded by certainty, Erin continues, “Right now is the very best moment in human history to be alive.” Erin says, and she truly believes, that people are better off now and that the world is fairer and more peaceful than ever before. She explains that it’s hard for us to remember with ongoing challenges, but that we need to be inspired by all of the positive change around us and the fact that we, as human beings, can create change. “No species that has ever existed before us could do that. They just had to live with what was. It’s inspiring that humans are that way. We can change our world.”