Pubdate: Tue, 20 Sep 2011
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2011 Helena Independent Record
Author: Charles S. Johnson, IR State Bureau 


The number of medical marijuana cardholders continues to drop under a
stricter, new state law, but an industry official said many
ex-patients are turning instead to the illegal black market, a
legislative committee heard Monday.

As of Aug. 31, Montana had about 25,500 medical marijuana cardholders,
down nearly 16 percent from the 31,500 registered as of May 31,
according to a report presented to the Children, Families, Health and
Human Services Interim Committee.

What's more, the number of providers who sell medical marijuana to
patients has plummeted by a far faster clip, from 4,650 on May 31 to
285 on Aug. 31, or nearly 94 percent. Providers were known as
caregivers under the previous law.

The drops follow the 2011 Legislature's passage of a law intended to
make it harder for people to obtain medical marijuana cards. The law
took effect July 1, but a District Court temporarily enjoined parts of
the law from taking effect then.

In addition, a signature-gathering effort is under way to let voters
in 2012 decide whether to keep or reject the controversial 2011 law.

Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, expressed surprise that the number of
cardholders hadn't dropped by more.

"We've been told the new law would really ratchet down the use of
medical marijuana," he said. "It looks like there's only been a 10
percent drop."

Legislative researcher Sue O'Connell said the number of cardholders
decreased by 16 percent, citing statistics from the registry compiled
by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

"You have to recall that anyone who had a card at the time the law
went into effect was allowed to keep that card until its normal
expiration date," she said. "Cards are issued for a one-year period."

She predicted the drop-off will be gradual.

Wittich asked when officials will know how much of a decline in cards
occurred under the law.

O'Connell said it would probably be in May or June 2012 because cards
began to be issued under the new law in June.

Kate Cholewa of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association said the new
law has driven many patients to buy their marijuana from illegal,
black market sources.

"This doesn't necessarily end up with fewer people using cannabis,"
she said. "It just ends up with more people you can put in jail for

Cholewa said fear is "pervasive" among providers after the many
federal raids of marijuana growers in Montana this year. Many
providers now are growing fewer than 100 plants each, she said,
because they have heard the feds will only go after those growing more
than 100 marijuana plants.

"People are producing less plants, which means bigger plants, which
means lower quality product," she said.

The reduced number of plants grown in turn has driven up the price for
medical marijuana sold legally and marijuana sold illegally, she said.

In addition, Cholewa said, it's become much more expensive for those
seeking a physician's medical marijuana recommendation for chronic
pain. The price has risen from $150 per patient visit before the new
law to as high as $350 today, she said.

"The medical (marijuana) market is less accessible and in some ways
it's less desirable for people because it's seemingly more dangerous,"
Cholewa said. "Some people are saying the black market is safer."

Roy Kemp, the chief medical marijuana regulator in the state health
department, said new rules will go in place Sept. 23 and require all
current providers of medical marijuana and marijuana-infused products
to be fingerprinted. The state has sent packets with fingerprint kits
to 477 current and pending providers, he said.

Their licenses will be revoked if they fail to return the fingerprints
by Oct. 1, he said. After Sept. 30, all people applying to be
providers must have passed the fingerprint background checks before
they can become registered providers, Kemp said.

"The marijuana program transition is still very recent," Kemp said.
"It is still very early for the department to discuss any program
legislative recommendations with this committee at this time."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.