Pubdate: Mon, 31 May 2010
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2010 Helena Independent Record
Author: Angela Brandt


More than 9 percent of Montanans on probation and parole, including
those who were previously arrested for drug offenses, carry registered
medical marijuana cards, according to statistics released last week by
the Department of Corrections to Lee Newspapers of Montana.

According to Corrections, 786 of the 8,710 probationers and parolees
here have medical marijuana cards. Of the 967,440 residents in the
Treasure State, 12,081 - or roughly 1.25 percent of the total
population - had obtained a marijuana card as of March 31, according
to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. That
figure rose to nearly 15,000 in April and May.

"It's a ridiculously large amount," said Andrew W. Paul, deputy
Missoula County attorney, who specializes in drug offenses.

By law, medical marijuana is available to people who suffer a
"debilitating medical condition." Nearly 7,000 people with medical
marijuana cards suffer from severe or chronic pain, and another 3,000
list their ailments as severe or chronic pain/muscle spasms. According
to the latest records, 355 card holders in the state have cancer, HIV
or glaucoma.

However, justice officials are concerned that many people are skirting
the law by falsely reporting they suffer from chronic pain in order to
receive a prescription. They worry that the public's image of an
elderly glaucoma or cancer patient as the primary receivers of medical
marijuana prescriptions is far off mark.

"I'm all for the cancer patient who is wasting away who needs it. That
was how this initiative was sold," Paul said. "To call it medicine for
80 percent of the people with cards is just a farce."

Paul isn't alone in his field. County attorneys across Montana are
seeing similar trends in the distribution of medical marijuana.

"My main concern is the abuse we're seeing," said Mike Menahan, a
state legislator and deputy county attorney in Lewis and Clark County.
"There are people it's beneficial for, but the people we see the most
are scamming the system for their own benefit. I'm afraid it will ruin
it for the people who are legitimate."

The legalization of medical marijuana also changes how law enforcement
officials look at probable cause in order to obtain a search warrant
for illegal growing operations or drug dealers. Paul said if police
officers receive information on an indoor grow operation, they must
first check to see if the person is a caregiver and how many
cardholders the person is supplying. Each grower, or "caregiver," can
have up to six plants for each patient they supply.

Paul said in his experience, many caregivers are going over their
limit with anywhere from a dozen to 100 more plants than they can
legally have.

"Every single search warrant, they've had more than their limit," he

Growers who possess more than the legal limit are charged with
manufacture or distribution of dangerous drugs. A person with a felony
drug offense on their record can't be a caregiver, but can have a
prescription card.

Paul said one of the answers to these issues is complete transparency.
Lists of caregivers and their patients should be available to law
enforcement officials 24 hours a day. Officers can call DPHHS during
business hours to check, but after hours, there is currently no way to
check. This would also help those with legitimate prescriptions to
ensure they aren't unjustly thrown in jail if they are found with
marijuana and aren't carrying their card, he said.

Menahan agrees that there is a lot of gray area when it comes to the

"Montana's wheat crops face more scrutiny," he said.

In probation and parole's Region 2 - the largest of six regions, which
includes Lewis and Clark, Broadwater, Powell, Granite, Deer Lodge,
Silver Bow, Beaverhead, Madison, Jefferson, Gallatin, Meagher, Park
and Sweet Grass counties - 172 people under parole supervision have
medical marijuana cards.

"It's a big concern for us," Region 2 Administrator Monty LeTexier

One of the largest issues for probation officers is that there is no
distinguishable line for abuse of marijuana like there is with
prescription painkillers such as oxycodone.

"How can we tell if they are using at a therapeutic level and who is
abusing it? That makes it very hard for us at a supervisory level,"
said Annette Carter, state probation and parole officer.

Another problem is court-ordered treatment for people with medical
marijuana prescriptions, LeTexier said. Many treatment programs won't
work with people under the influence of any mind-altering medication.
The probationer must then seek a licensed addiction counselor who will
work with people currently using medical marijuana.

Boyd Andrew Community Services, which provides services across the
state and is the primary provider of chemical dependency outpatient
services to residents in Lewis and Clark, Broadwater and Jefferson
counties, will not provide services for people under the influence of
medicinal marijuana.

Mike Rupert, chief executive officer for Boyd Andrew, said its
programs discourage the use of any mind-altering medications, but
medicinal marijuana is the one substance with which it has a zero
tolerance policy.

"People are just realizing how it's being abused," Rupert said. "The
vast majority of these people are scamming the system. It's a joke.
It's got to be 90-something percent are scamming."

Although Montana voters passed the medical marijuana initiative in
November 2004, not many cards were issued for the first couple of
years. In the year after it passed, 176 people were issued cards,
according to a study prepared for the Children, Families, Health, and
Human Services Interim Committee in April.

In June 2008, the number of cardholders reached 1,000.

By December 2009, the number had jumped to 7,339.

DPHHS has issued nearly 5,000 more cards in the first three months of
this year, according to the study - with almost 15,000 now. About
2,800 people are registered to provide marijuana on behalf of one or
more patients.

Mineral County has the highest population of cardholders with nearly 3
percent of the total population. Probation and parole officers
reported that in Mineral, Ravalli and Missoula counties, 213 people
currently under supervision have medical marijuana cards.

The actual number of probationers and parolees who have cards may be
higher given that some report every six months and may have obtained a
card in the meantime, and sometimes it is only revealed that an
offender has a card after failing a urinalysis.

The Department of Corrections in 2008 proposed banning anyone on
probation from using medical marijuana. That was abandoned when it was
realized the state's medical marijuana law does not allow for any
penalty for using medical marijuana, regardless of a person's criminal

"The problem is we're really on the cusp of this issue," said Bob
Anez, spokesperson for Corrections. "It has incubated in the
background for quite some time." 
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