Pubdate: Tue, 20 Sep 2011 Source: Missoulian (MT) Copyright: 2011 Missoulian Contact: http://www.missoulian.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/720 Author: Charles S. Johnson, Missoulian State Bureau MONTANA MEDICAL MARIJUANA CARDHOLDERS DROP; SOME TURN TO ILLEGAL MARKET HELENA - The number of medical marijuana cardholders continues to drop under a strict 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 last May 31, according to a report presented to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee. The number of providers who sell medical marijuana to patients has plummeted by a far faster clip, from 4,650 on May 31 to just 285 on Aug. 31, or nearly 94 percent. Providers were known as caregivers under the previous law. The drops follow the 2011 Montana 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 instead of going through the state-regulated system. "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 it." 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 word on the street is 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 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 requiring all 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 be registered. "The marijuana program transition is still very recent and continues under way," Kemp said. "It is still very early for the department to discuss any legislative recommendations with this committee at this time." - --- MAP posted-by: Richard R Smith Jr.