Marijuana Provider, Patient Numbers Plummet

By Beacon Staff

Business is slow at Cripple Creek Remedies, a medical marijuana dispensary in Evergreen.

Jeff Howell, a partner in the shop, said sales have fallen considerably since July 1, when the state implemented new restrictions on the industry. Howell said he made $78 on Sept. 20, which “is not enough to pay the bills.”

“I’d like to see things leveling out and, naturally, business to increase,” Howell said.

Part of his problem, he said, is that people are unaware that dispensaries are still open in the Flathead. Another issue is the uncertainty about where the industry is headed.

While parts of the state’s new medical marijuana law are still in flux, either due to ballot initiative efforts or judicial injunction, its implementation has already caused considerable change in the Flathead. The number of registered marijuana providers has plummeted, and patient numbers have also dropped.

In accordance with Senate Bill 423, passed by the 2011 Legislature, medical marijuana caregivers had until July 1 to re-register with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services as providers or marijuana-infused products providers.

The new provider registration rules include a background check, and applicants with any drug charges or felonies on their record will be denied. Another part of the law says that local law enforcement will be notified of providers’ names and grow locations.

At the end of June, Flathead County had 641 registered caregivers, according to DPHHS. By the end of August, that number had fallen to 41 providers.

Statewide, there were 4,312 caregivers in June 2011. By August, there were 285 registered providers.

Patient numbers are also down in Flathead County, decreasing from 3,438 in June to 2,954 in August.

Roy Kemp, deputy administrator of the Quality Assurance Division for DPHHS, said the department continues to process applications and change-request forms as they come in.

Kemp also said the department will implement the law enforcement notification aspect of the new law, but the database modification takes time.

Medical marijuana advocates have several theories about the sudden decrease in providers. Jim Gingery of the Montana Marijuana Growers Association believes most people who were patients as well as caregivers before the July 1 deadline decided to stop selling their product and just grow for themselves.

This decision was largely based on fear, Gingery said, resonating from multiple federal raids on medical marijuana businesses last March. So far, three men from the Flathead have pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from the raids.

Many dispensaries in the valley closed in the immediate days following the raids. If they reopened, they had to close again by July 1 in accordance with the new law. Dispensary doors were to remain closed until the owners registered as providers, according to DPHHS.

“Anybody who was growing for patients, even the ones who have reopened their businesses, are petrified that the state of Montana won’t stand up for them,” Gingery said last week.

Eric Anthony, co-owner of a Kalispell dispensary, said his business liquidated its products before June 30 and shut down for six weeks after the July 1 deadline. While the regulations are tougher than before, Anthony said they have not been problematic since he has a clean criminal record.

Business is rebounding, he said, though it is not bustling as it was before. Before the change, Anthony’s business had about 200 clients. Now the client list is about 75 or 80, he said.

The parts of SB 423 that would have been the hardest on his business – those banning providers from making profits on their products or advertising their wares – were blocked by a judge’s injunction, Anthony said.

Still, running a dispensary has its risks, including the ever-present fear of federal agents showing up at the door.

“We have to continuously be worried about that,” Anthony said. “You never can tell; it’s always in the back of my head every day when I go to sleep.”

Both Anthony’s dispensary and Cripple Creek Remedies have signs in their windows inviting people to sign a petition supporting IR-124, an initiative that would allow voters to decide on the 2012 ballot whether to reject the new medical marijuana law.

In order to get the initiative on the ballot, supporters must gather 24,337 valid signatures statewide by Sept. 30.

James Blair, who runs the signature-gathering efforts in the Flathead for the group Patients for Reform – Not Repeal, said the drive has not gone as well as he would have hoped, but said as of last week his group had about 34,000 signatures.

The organization’s goal is 39,000 signatures to leave room for those that may be declared invalid, Blair said.

Blair described the initiative as less about marijuana than it is about lawmakers drastically changing a law voters approved in 2004.

“The petition, to me it’s not about medical marijuana, it’s about our state Legislature overriding the people of Montana,” he said. “I don’t think our Legislature should ever have that much power.”

Even if the petitioners gather enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, Anthony said uncertainty surrounding medical marijuana would likely continue.

“In the long run, it’s going to stay like this until 2012,” Anthony said.