Montana Medical Marijuana Changes Cause Confusion

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Some of the changes in Montana’s medical marijuana law that took effect Friday have created confusion among users and distributors after a judge blocked other parts of the restrictive overhaul.

Helena District Judge James Reynolds on Thursday temporarily blocked portions of the law that eliminated Montana’s “caregiver” system for distributing marijuana. The law renames caregivers as providers and bans them from making a profit or distributing marijuana to more than three patients.

But while the judge blocked the ban on profits and on patient limits, the name change from caregiver to provider did become effective Friday.

A marijuana advocacy group says that technically means anybody still registered as a caregiver cannot legally provide marijuana to patients until they re-register with the state as providers.

To ensure no law enforcement agency tries to exploit the technicality to shut down a pot distributor, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association is telling all medical marijuana users who use caregivers to go to the state health department and fill out the necessary paperwork to re-register their caregivers as their providers.

“We’re hoping that an administrative, bureaucratic technicality won’t be exploited by law enforcement. That would be a bit heavy handed,” group spokeswoman Kate Cholewa said. “We’re sure this is an unintended consequence. We hope that it will be treated as such.”

The group’s call to users and providers to re-register with the state has the potential of creating a glut at the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which already in the throes of writing regulations for the new marijuana law.

There are more than 30,000 registered marijuana users in Montana. About two-thirds of them use caregivers to obtain marijuana while the rest grow their own, according to health department.

The department’s chief regulator, Roy Kemp, said officials have seen an increase in people asking for provider applications, though he was unsure whether the judge’s ruling made it necessary.

“I am accepting provider applications from individuals, but I have no idea whether that is a necessary transition or not,” Kemp said.

Reynolds on Thursday also temporarily blocked provisions of the new law banning advertising of medical marijuana, allowing unannounced searches of providers and requiring an investigation into any doctor who recommends marijuana for more than 25 patients in a year.

Those portions of the law, along with the ban on commercial pot operations, will be on hold until the Montana Cannabis Industry Association’s constitutional challenge to the law is heard.

But the rest of the changes took effect Friday, including measures designed to rein in what lawmakers called an industry that has spun out of control because of gray areas in the 2004 voter-approved initiative legalizing medical marijuana.

Now, new or renewing medical marijuana users must be Montana residents and they must provide proof of their chronic pain to qualify for a registration card with that medical condition. They also must carry their registration cards at all times.

The number of mature marijuana plants allowed per patient has been lowered from six to four, and they can’t be grown in view of the street or a public place.

Law enforcement officers now have a standard to test for driving under the influence of marijuana after obtaining a search warrant and officials will now know where a pot provider’s grow operation is located, information that was confidential under the old law.

Providers also must be Montana residents, not have a felony or drug conviction on their records and they can’t combine growing operations with other providers. Plus, providers must now be fingerprinted and undergo a background check.

Kemp said the department has until Oct. 1 to start those checks.

Additional restrictions also will be placed on doctors who recommend medical marijuana. They must have a Montana office, assume primary responsibility for the patient’s care and not be affiliated with or receive any money from marijuana providers.

Kemp said the health department is in the process of writing regulations and he foresees no problems with implementing the law.