MT: 93 Percent Of Medical Marijuana Patients Lacks Provider Under New Law

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Butte – The number of registered medical marijuana patients in Montana without access to a legal provider has quadrupled in the past two weeks to 11,850 patients.

Ninety-three percent of the 12,730 patients registered with the Montana Marijuana Program are listed as “patients with no provider” in the program’s first monthly report since a law limiting providers to three patients took effect on Aug. 31.

That’s according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services’ Montana Marijuana Registry report released last week.

The department says it’s not quite as bad as it looks.

Spokesman Jon Ebelt said that “patients with no provider” are actually considered their own provider, meaning they can grow marijuana for themselves.

Since Montana’s 457 remaining medical marijuana providers can only have three patients each, most patients don’t have anyone to turn to. Predicting this shortfall, Ebelt said the health department sent out temporary 30-day provider cards on Sept. 1 to over 8,600 patients who didn’t tell the state who their new provider would be by the time the new law came into effect on Aug. 31. Those cards allow patients to cultivate their own plants for personal medical use only, and possess up to an ounce of harvested marijuana.

Senior legislative counsel of the Marijuana Policy Project Chris Lindsey thinks it’s unrealistic that very many patients could buy equipment, obtain seeds, learn to grow and get permission from their landlord to start growing at home.

“There is a perception that growing at home is like growing house plants, but it is actually very involved, and the cost savings compared with purchasing can be offset by things like security, demanding schedule (daily and weekly duties, and no more vacations), and the possible presence of young family members,” Lindsey said. “Growing marijuana is no small step for anyone.”

Lindsey said the vast majority of patients in state medical marijuana programs buy (or as of Aug. 31 in Montana, used to buy) their medicine from providers, almost always a dispensary. With most Montana patients now cut off from dispensaries and unable to grow, Lindsey said their choice is buying illegally or not buying at all.

“Unfortunately the underground market is a much easier option for many patients. And those without any resources to do it at home, or who choose not to break the law, will just have to stop for a while,” he said.

JJ Thomas owns The Marijuana Company, a Butte medical dispensary that shuttered this month because it couldn’t sustain operations with only three patients. He said the equipment costs alone to get a home grow off the ground would be at least $1,000, and wouldn’t produce anything usable for four months. He said providers can’t sell seeds or cloned plants, so it’s unclear where the health department expects personal providers to get their starters.

One woman’s story
Kati Wetch has had 18 brain and spinal surgeries for conditions she can best describe as a skull too small for a brain that causes neurological disorders by herniating down on her spine, and a body that doesn’t have the glue to hold itself together. She is legally disabled to the point where she cannot work.

“Everything dislocates,” she said. “I have extreme muscle spasms from being cut open all the time.”

Wetch said she’s been in the Montana Marijuana Program for 11 years, almost since its inception, and that she was the first minor registered in the program at age 16.

“That’s what’s so frustrating about all this too. This was implemented in 2004, I got sick in 2005, and ever since I’ve been a patient we’ve been having to fight for our rights,” Wetch said.

“I was 96 pounds and dropping because of the brain stem compression and nausea issues. I was throwing up every single day, and this is the only thing that gave me any kind of relief,” she said, “it’s basically my lifeline.”

Wetch believes that if the health department’s intent with the personal provider cards was to cover patients until the legislative session, it’s not working.

Ebelt said the health department doesn’t monitor whether patients have access to marijuana, only if they have a provider. Because of this, the health department doesn’t know how many of the 8,600 Montanans issued they issued emergency personal provider cards are actually growing for themselves. Providers and patients agree that it can’t be many.

“Everybody knows you can’t grow medical cannabis from seed to finish in nine weeks, so I don’t know what they’re really expecting people to do in that time frame,” Wetch said.

Wetch is one of the lucky patients: Her partner is her provider. They live in Billings, where he’s one of 48 providers in Yellowstone County, which has gained two providers since August. With a maximum of three patients each, those providers can only serve at most 144 patients. There are 1,306 registered medical marijuana patients in Yellowstone County.

Fear of retribution
Wetch said many patients are afraid of speaking up about being cut off from access to marijuana for fear of retribution, especially those whose conditions aren’t severe enough to preclude them from working.

A patient now without a provider agreed to speak with the Montana Standard under the condition of anonymity. She’s not ashamed to use medical marijuana, but she’s a state employee and afraid to lose her job if her employer found out.

She’s right to be afraid. The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that the despite language in the Medical Marijuana Act protecting patients from denial of rights, the law doesn’t protect employees fired for legally using medical marijuana.

When her dispensary closed up on Aug. 31, she was out of options.

She wouldn’t dare ask her landlord for permission to grow in her home, not that she has the space, know-how, seeds, money or desire to do so. Getting permission would leave a paper trail. She couldn’t afford to stock up before the law went into effect, and said she will run out of marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms in a week. She said she’d never buy it black market, she wouldn’t even know where to begin as she’s only ever purchased marijuana legally through the state program.

“I’m not in a position where I’d be able to grow on my own,” she said.

She doesn’t know what she’s going to do at the end of next week, but hopes voters pass I 82 in November, a ballot measure that would reform medical marijuana laws and get her back a provider. She doesn’t want to go back to pain pills and muscle relaxants, the side effects were too much.

Back to pharmaceuticals
Butte resident Johnny Shipley said he’s had to go back on pharmaceuticals since the 3 patient limit went into effect, and that he knows other cut-off patients doing the same. The 67-year-old used marijuana for arthritis, and his wife luckily still has a provider to treat her multiple sclerosis. Before medical marijuana, Shipley said his wife was in a wheel chair two days a week and was afraid to hold her grandkids because she thought she might drop them.

The Shipleys – married 48 years – didn’t have the budget for Johnny to stock up before Aug. 31 either. He didn’t bother even renewing his medical marijuana card. He said others are in worse pain than him and he didn’t want to be one more person holding up the line if he could bear it.

“I thought about going out and getting some anyway but I don’t want to do that because my wife still has legal access and I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna screw this program up, I’ve seen the benefits,” Shipley said.

Marijuana helped both Shipley and his wife sleep through the night, easing her pain and his PTSD.

“You see her there sleeping peacefully and I can’t tell you how much that means to me,” he said.

Without marijuana for himself, Shipley’s restless nights are back.

“When you get to be a great grandpa and you’ve got the great-grandchildren over and they’re asking why great-grandpa was screaming last night, you really don’t know what to say. And it makes you feel kind of second rate. And not having that happen and not having to worry about it really makes a difference in the way a guy feels. It helps pick a guy up,” Shipley said.

I 82 and PTSD
Shipley’s PTSD isn’t a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in Montana, but if voters pass I 82 in November it would be, in addition to doing away with patient limits for providers and reforming many other parts of the law. Shipley is counting on it.

The new law effectively cutting off patients from medicine isn’t new at all. SB 423 was originally passed back in 2011 at the height of what many politicians agree was an abuse of the original 2004 medical marijuana law by healthy folks who just wanted to get high.

Missoula Senator Cliff Larsen is listed a primary sponsor of SB 423, but he’s no fan.

“The bill that actually passed wasn’t the one I wanted,” Larsen said.

In 2011 the Montana Republicans owned the legislature, and led by Billings Senator Jeff Essmann aimed to dismantle a medical marijuana program even Democrats agreed had gotten out of hand.

Larsen said he was tasked by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer with taking the teeth out of SB 423, provisions that would hurt Montanans with legitimate medical need for marijuana. The Democrats failed. The bill passed with multiple provisions that worried medical marijuana advocates, including the three-patient limit for providers.

Challenged by the Montana marijuana industry immediately, the law languished in the courts until two weeks ago. The Montana Supreme Court reversed the ruling of a lower court earlier this year, and Attorney General Tim Fox denied appeals by medical marijuana patients and the health department to delay the law’s implementation until after the coming legislative session, when voters might pass I 82.

Larsen called the law’s implementation apocryphal, and said Montana has moved backwards in the intervening years since the law was written as other Northwest states have passed legalization. Calling from his RV on the Oregon Coast, Larsen said it was sadly ironic he could smell commercial legal pot being smoked on the campground while back home patients were cut off from their medicine.

“I’m really disappointed that the people who need the medicine can’t get it anymore,” he said.

Larsen told the Billings Gazette when the bill first passed he was afraid truly sick people would have a hard time finding a provider under the new law.

Sen. Essmann, now chairman of the Montana Republican Party, declined to comment on the recent implementation of SB 423.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: 93 Percent Of Medical Marijuana Patients Lacks Provider Under New Law
Author: Hunter Pauli
Contact: (406) 447-4000
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Website: Independent Record