Pubdate: Tue, 20 Sep 2011
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2011 Missoulian
Author: Charles S. Johnson, Missoulian State Bureau 


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.