Pubdate: Sun, 19 Feb 2012
Source: Missoulian (MT)
Copyright: 2012 Missoulian
Author: Charles S. Johnson


HELENA-The number of medical marijuana cardholders in Montana 
continues to plummet, while the number of legal marijuana providers 
is a fraction of its peak, as the industry faces an uncertain future here.

The 2011 Legislature passed of a much more restrictive law, Senate 
Bill 423, which has reduced these numbers. Then there were several 
dozen federal raids of medical marijuana growing operations, along 
with the arrests and convictions of some owners.

The combination of the new law and the federal raids has put a damper 
on the once-booming industry here, officials say.

Since the law took effect in July 2011, the state has seen the number 
of medical marijuana cardholders drop by nearly half. The number of 
providers now is less than 10 percent of the peak.

"Senate Bill 423 certainly had an impact," said Roy Kemp, the chief 
medical marijuana regulator in the state Department of Public Health 
and Human Services. "Federal activities certainly have had an impact. 
The bill made it very difficult for providers to enter the field, as it were."

John Masterson of Missoula, executive director of Montana NORML, a 
group working to legalize marijuana in the state, put it more bluntly.

"The federal raids have terrified so many legitimate providers that 
are otherwise law-abiding providers, who are closing their doors all 
over the place," Masterson said.

That, in turn, "cuts off the legal supply to patients that benefit 
from this herb," he said.

In January 2012, Montana had 15,984 medical marijuana cardholders 
registered with the state's medical marijuana program in the 
Department of Public Health and Human Services.

That's the lowest monthly total since the 13,885 people registered in 
April 2010. It's a little less than half of the peak in May 2011, 
when the Montana cardholders, then called patients, totaled 31,522.

By the end of January 2012, Montana had 417 legal medical marijuana 
providers - the people who legally grow and sell medical pot for 
licensed cardholders - after peaking at 4,848 in March 2011, 
according to the state's statistics. Providers were called caregivers 
until the 2011 law took effect.

Under the 2011 law, all caregivers' licenses cards became invalid on 
July 1, 2011. Those wanting to continue to legally grow and sell 
marijuana for medical reasons had to register with the department to 
get providers' cards.

The new law prohibited anyone with any felony conviction or any 
misdemeanor drug conviction from being medical marijuana providers.

"It's important to note that all providers are not created equal," 
Masterson said. "There were a handful with warehouses with an 
agricultural crop grown indoors with a wholesale business."

The vast majority of providers or caregivers, he said, grew marijuana 
in a spare bedroom for a couple of people.

And the number of physicians who can recommend the use of medical 
marijuana was at 274 in January, after peaking at 365 in June 2010.

Regardless of the medical marijuana statistical trends, Masterson 
said the people who use marijuana in Montana have not disappeared.

"No matter what, there's going to be about 100,000 people who consume 
marijuana in Montana," he said, applying statistical estimates here.

"These folks, whether they are consuming it to address a serious 
medical condition or to enhance their lives or to relax after a hard 
day's work, generally speaking, they're going to do so whether 
there's a state-sanctioned program or not."

As a result, many have turned to buying marijuana illegally, he said.

Under Montana law, medical marijuana cardholders must renew their 
cards annually.

"We're losing about 51 percent of renewals," Kemp said. "That seems 
to be the trend. If that trend continues, we'll end up with 
12,000-13,000 (cardholders) by May."

State officials don't know why cardholders aren't renewing to get new cards.

"When they don't renew, they don't talk to us," Kemp said. "They just 
fade away."

The new law doesn't allow people under supervision of the state 
Corrections Department or federal government to be medical marijuana 
cards. However, they can keep their cards until May at the latest 
when their current cards expire.

Kemp said the number of new applications for medical marijuana cards 
is increasing slightly. He said 181 people applied in January and 190 
in December.

Last year, medical marijuana was one of the hottest issues facing the 
Republican-controlled Legislature. Many lawmakers were determined to 
crack down on the industry, if not repeal the 2004 voter-passed 
initiative that legalized the use of marijuana in Montana for some 
medicinal reasons.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, vetoed a bill that would have 
repealed the 2004 initiative legalizing medical marijuana here.

After the veto, the Legislature then passed SB423 to impose more 
restrictions on an industry that some legislators and others believed 
had reeled out of control in recent years. Local governments, 
law-enforcement officials, school administrators and parents had 
expressed concern over the rapidly expanding industry.

"Cannabis caravans" had crisscrossed the state and issued cards by 
the hundreds, if not thousands, to patients. Some people got their 
cards after brief consultations with physicians, sometimes in person 
and sometimes via the Internet. Storefronts popped up to sell medical 
pot to licensed patients.

Those in the industry said they believed they were following the law 
until a reversal in federal policy by U.S. Attorney General Eric 
Holder triggered federal raids of medical marijuana businesses in 
Montana and elsewhere.

SB423 became law without the governor's signature.

Its sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said 
the law made two major changes that sought to reduce the number of 
certified medical marijuana cardholders.

First, he said, the law imposed stricter requirements for people to 
obtain a doctor's recommendation for "severe or chronic pain," which 
had become by far the most common reason cited by people to obtain 
medical marijuana cards.

"They had to have objective proof or a second doctor's 
recommendation," Essmann said.

Objective proof means medical evidence of the person's chronic or 
severe pain through an X-ray or MRI or other diagnosis.

The number of people obtaining medical marijuana cards for "severe or 
chronic pain" has shrunk from 23,015 in May 2011 to 10,255 in January 2012.

The law also tightened medical standards for those physicians who 
recommended medical marijuana to many patients.

"We started to take some steps which the district court has put into 
abeyance," Essmann said. "It's following proper standards of review 
by the doctor that's the key to the proper addressing of the problem."

His bill called for the Department of Public Health and Human 
Services to report to the state Board of Medical Examiners the names 
of any physicians recommending medical marijuana for more than 25 
patients over a 12-month period. The law empowered the board to 
review the practices of these physicians.

This was one of several provisions in the law that District Judge 
James Reynolds of Helena temporarily blocked on June 30, 2011 - the 
day before the law went into effect. Other parts of the law took effect.

Both the state attorney general's office, which is defending the law, 
and the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which wants it struck 
down, have appealed parts of his ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. 
The court has not yet heard the appeals.

Meanwhile, last year, opponents of SB423 mounted an effort and 
quickly gathered more than 36,000 signatures for a referendum on the 
law in November. Montanans will decide then whether to retain or 
reject the law.

At the same time, marijuana backers are gathering signatures for a 
separate ballot measure asserting that it's the constitutional right 
of adults to legally consume marijuana in Montana, regardless of 
their medical condition.

"We're going to have a vote in the fall," Essmann said. "People will 
make a decision whether they want to go back to the Wild West, 
whether they want to bring storefronts back, and whether they want to 
have an industry again.

"If not, they should to leave (SB)423 in law," he said.

Masterson said there may be a Supreme Court decision on SB423 by 
then, plus the possibility of two ballot issues addressing marijuana.

"There are a lot of moving parts," he said. "It's anybody's guess how 
it's going to play out."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom