Montana Issuing Marijuana Cards Under New Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Montana health officials have processed more than 500 medical marijuana card applications under temporary rules as part of the state’s cannabis overhaul, a spokesman said.

The temporary rules reveal layers of new forms and procedures that are part of implementing tougher restrictions intended to curb what had been one of the most permissive marijuana industries in the country.

The state’s revised medical marijuana law began to go into effect May 14, doing away with the Department of Public Health and Human Services authority to issue cards.

On Wednesday, the department was granted emergency powers to create rules to issue marijuana cards under the new law before the entire law goes into effect on July 1.

There was initial confusion over the transition timeline from the old 2005 voter-approved law to the new more restrictive overhaul. The department first said they would continue to process cards under the old law to “error on the side of the patients.” The bill’s sponsor Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said that was against the law.

The department revised its approach, and began processing applications under the new law on June 1.

Department spokesman Jon Ebelt said the agency had processed at least 500 patient applications by Friday, but has not begun processing applications for marijuana providers under the new law.

The temporary regulations involve added complexity for patients and marijuana providers to be a registered member of the state’s new pot industry.

Growers can only provide marijuana for up to three patients under the new rules, they could previously provide for an unlimited number.

Also, growers can now only register to be a provider if a patient has already applied to the department with an application that names the grower.

Once the department accepts that application, the grower is sent an application packet. If the grower’s application is accepted, the patient is given a new marijuana card naming their provider.

Patients will have new complexities to navigate as well. They have to choose between three different physician forms in their application for a marijuana card: chronic pain, a debilitating condition or a separate form for minors.

Critics of the previous system said chronic pain was a vague condition abused by cardholders who didn’t need the drug. Now, an applicant who claims chronic pain must provide either physical proof, like an X-ray, or a second doctor’s confirmation of the diagnosis.

Patients will also have to submit proof of residency through a state-issued identification card.

The new law is an effort to rein in the marijuana industry that has become the target of federal raids on large growers, most recently on a provider in Helena last month. The drug is deemed illegal and dangerous by the federal government and the U.S. attorney for Montana has also cautioned against marijuana businesses.

With more than 30,000 patients, the state has one of the largest ratios of legal marijuana users to population of the 16 states and District of Columbia with medical marijuana laws. Large-scale growers have retail operations across the state.

The biggest change under the new law is that it does away with marijuana businesses in an effort to avoid federal intervention. The drug has to be given away free of charge, on compassionate grounds.