Number of Montanan Medical Marijuana Cardholders, Providers Drops Dramatically

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.”

– Article originally from: The Missoulian.