Pubdate: Thu, 03 Jun 2010
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2010 Helena Independent Record
Author: Matt Volz


As Bob Marley music wailed in the next room, the makeshift clinic
hummed along like an assembly line: Patients went in to see a doctor,
paid $150 and walked out with a recommendation that they be allowed to
buy and smoke medical marijuana.

So it went, all day, at a hotel just blocks from the state Capitol
that was the latest stop of the so-called cannabis caravan, a band of
doctors and medical marijuana advocates roaming Montana that has
helped thousands of patients apply for medical marijuana cards from
the state.

"You're helping end suffering on this planet for human beings," clinic
organizer Jason Christ said as he sat outside the hotel in an RV
filled with pot smoke.

To the dismay of state medical authorities and lawmakers, the caravans
have helped the number of pot cardholders in Montana swell over the
past year from about 3,000 to 15,000.

Christ's group, Montana Caregivers Network, will take the caravan out
of Montana later this month for the first time, with clinics scheduled
in three Michigan cities: Detroit, Kalamazoo and Lansing. He said pot
advocates from several other states _ including New Mexico, New Jersey
and Hawaii _ have contacted him to inquire about setting up similar

The state medical board is trying to curtail the mass screenings and
recently fined a physician who participated in a similar clinic in the
first disciplinary action taken against a doctor in a Montana medical
marijuana case. The board found that the doctor had seen about 150
people in 14 1/2 hours, or roughly a patient every six minutes,
nowhere near enough to provide appropriate care in the eyes of medical

The board also recently reminded physicians that they must perform
thorough examinations, take medical histories, discuss alternative
treatments and monitor patients' response to the cannabis _ standards
that typically apply when prescribing other medication.

"Be on the alert. You are still held to these same standards," said
Jean Branscum, the board's executive director.

The roving cannabis caravans appear to be unique to Montana, although
mobile marijuana operations have arisen elsewhere. A rolling marijuana
dispensary in California sold chocolate-covered cookies, brownies,
pretzels and other marijuana-laced items out of an RV before
authorities moved to shut it down.

Mike Meno, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, the chief
lobbying arm of the legalization movement, said the 14 states that
allow medical marijuana have varying regulations that could make it
difficult for the caravans to operate outside Montana.

"The more I hear about these things, it sounds like they're not
following the intent of the law," Meno said. "People say they might be
making a mockery of the law, and I hope that's not the case."

Medical marijuana has been legal in Montana for more than five years,
allowing people with debilitating conditions to buy pot with a
doctor's permission.

After the Obama administration announced last year that it would not
prosecute medical marijuana users, the pace of registrations
quickened, and people began flocking to the caravans.

At a recent stop in Helena, the clinic processed between 200 and 300
people seeking doctor recommendations. The organization then helps the
patient send the application and doctor's recommendation to the state
health department. After the patient receives a card, he can begin
using marijuana.

In the hotel conference room, when patients emerged from behind a
curtain after talking with a doctor, they were ushered to the next
room, where a half-dozen marijuana providers competed to become their
personal "caregiver," as the suppliers are called in Montana.

A group called the First Montana Grow Circle signed up 15 new patients
that day. One of them was a state employee who spoke on condition of
anonymity because she feared repercussions from her employer and her

She said she went to the clinic during her lunch hour after her
personal doctor declined to prescribe medical marijuana for her severe
migraine headaches. "He said I am not the type of person he would
prescribe it for. He said I'm not there yet based on my medical
history," the woman said.

She said the doctor at the clinic gave her the recommendation she was
looking for after a 15-minute examination and a promise to send him
her medical records. She said the marijuana has eased but not
eliminated her headaches.

The Montana Board of Medical Examiners fined Dr. Patricia Cole $2,000,
accusing her of practicing substandard care at a medical marijuana
clinic in Great Falls last year. The caregivers' network is paying her
fine. She is also barred from participating in such clinics.

The board said Cole did not document whether she took medical
histories or performed physical examinations, did not discuss proper
dosing and failed to document a risk analysis of medical marijuana for

Cole said she agreed to the punishment, but believes she is being made
an example of as the board seeks to halt the caravans. She said she
reviewed medical histories online before the clinic.

At the same, some lawmakers say the clinics demonstrate the pot boom
is out of control and the rules need tightening.

Despite the warnings and the disciplinary action, the cannabis
caravans are slated to roll on next month with stops in Kalispell,
Missoula, Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman and Billings.

"Change is scary. I understand," Christ said of the backlash. But he
added: "The need is out there. Patients are in pain."

(This version CORRECTS that patients receive a recommendation, but
still must await formal approval to buy and use pot.) 
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