MT: Medical Marijuana Providers At Crossroads As New Law Looms

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Billings – Jack Haney just wants 10 more weeks.

On Aug. 31, he and other medical marijuana providers will drop all but three of their registered cardholders under a new Montana law that takes effect that day.

On Nov. 8, voters will decide whether to revert back to the current law, which has no restriction on the number of people providers can serve. Haney views the 10 weeks in between is an interim period with significant changes for both his business and his patients.

“There’s no way that these people are going to be able to set up their grow, find seeds or clones and be able to have a crop before we vote,” he said.

Other providers are shutting their doors ahead of the August deadline as the number of dispensaries in Montana continues its downward slide. And while the new law marks a sea change in the state’s rollercoaster medical marijuana industry, the November vote in its wake could bring another.

Nick Frentsos said he’ll be shutting down his Lockwood dispensary, Bloom Montana. After opening a year ago, Bloom now serves more than 100 patients across half of the state, Frentsos said.

He said that he wouldn’t be able to keep a storefront open with just three customers.

“It’s a financial decision to shut our doors, and that financial decision is affected by the legal limits of the new law,” Frentsos said. “If we could provide for maybe 12 people, then it might be reasonable to stay open. But that’s not the case.”

The incoming law passed in 2011, but a five-year legal challenge postponed certain parts. The most hotly contested provisions were the three-patient limit and an automatic state review of doctors who recommend the drug to more than 25 patients.

The law passed the Montana Legislature as SB 423, and it was designed to slow a booming medical marijuana trade.

There were concerns about the number of shops popping up in Montana cities after the number of registered cardholders ballooned to more than 30,000. Others worried that people with minor ailments were getting access to marijuana for primarily recreational purposes.

Jeff Essmann, who was a Republican state senator at the time, carried the bill. He said in 2011 that the intent was to return to “what the voters intended – a small program for truly ill individuals.”

Now a ballot initiative, I-182, has been approved for the fall ballot. Sponsored by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, the measure will remove the provisions brought by SB 423.

I-182 would also add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of approved ailments for medical marijuana treatment and require product testing.

Even while the law sat in legal limbo, the number of providers dropped 89 percent since the program’s peak in June 2011, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. That’s a drop from 4,650 to 487 as of July 2016.

A large number of the remaining providers could leave the program ahead of Aug. 31. Providers needed to register their three patients under the new law by Aug. 1, otherwise the health department assumes they will no longer operate.

About 35 percent of remaining providers didn’t register or have requested to be removed from the program, according to health department spokesman Jon Ebelt.

It can be a big change for patients who get dropped by their providers, as well. Their choice is to grow their own marijuana, which is legal under the law, or to stock up and wait for November.

Growing medical-grade marijuana can be costly, time-consuming and difficult for people with serious medical conditions.

“It’s not the easiest plant to grow, especially because a lot of us grow indoors,” Frentsos said. “It’s rather expensive.”

Jason Smith, who co-owns Montana Advanced Caregivers in Billings, said that he has patients who might be able to grow on their own but aren’t able to because many landlords won’t allow it on rental property.

Smith is also hoping that a legal push might bridge those 10 weeks. In the meantime, he’s staying in business and already registered his three patients. His business has served hundreds.

“We’re not going to give it up for nothing,” he said. “We’re continuing to rent right through it.”

Proponents are hoping that implementation of the law will be held off yet again through court action. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association, of which Haney is a board member, has requested Lewis and Clark County District Judge James Reynolds to order a stay on the law.

Reynolds made the same move back in 2011 when the MTCIA challenged SB 423.

Among those speaking out for 10 more weeks is Bob Ream, a former Democratic Montana legislator and professor emeritus of wildlife biology. He’s also a stage IV cancer patient.

In July, Montana newspapers carried his letter, in which he shared his challenges with illness and his experience with medical marijuana. He wrote that a three-patient limit would put too many providers out of business, cutting off access to patients like himself.

After shutting down his business, Frentsos said that he may try to provide for three patients himself. In the meantime, he said that most hopes are pinned on the November vote.

“It’s so important at the local level,” he said. “And that’s become very evident with this whole medical marijuana deal.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Medical Marijuana Providers At Crossroads As New Law Looms
Author: Matt Hudson
Contact: (406) 447-4000
Photo Credit: Casey Page
Website: Independent Record