A week after a judge cleared the path for expanded access to medical marijuana in Montana, dispensaries are working to restock shelves and patients are trying to reinstate their cannabis registration with the state.
On Dec. 7, District Judge James Reynolds of Helena ruled a drafting error in a voter-approved ballot initiative should not delay the measure’s implementation. Initiative 182, approved by voters last month, struck down a law passed by the Montana Legislature in 2011 that limited medical marijuana providers to three patients each.
The three-patient limit took effect in August, forcing the closure of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state. The move also left nearly 90 percent of cannabis cardholders in Montana without access to a legal provider.
Margaret Dawson of Kalispell is one of those patients. Dawson, 69, said she had polio as a child, which destroys nerve cells along the spinal cord. Her back’s deterioration led to a series of medical conditions, including headaches that brought on nausea.
For 15 years, Dawson alternated between anti-nauseants and opiates. She switched to medical marijuana last February.
After the rollback, the state revoked medical marijuana cards of people who didn’t have access to a legal provider or register to grow their own cannabis. Dawson’s card was one of those revoked.
“I was out a provider and I can’t grow a thing, let alone cannabis,” Dawson said. “So my card was gone. Even with this rule change, I’m not sure how long it will be until I get it back.”
She’s scheduled to see a doctor Dec. 20 for a second medical marijuana recommendation, but she’s not sure how long it will take for the state health department to review her application.
Before the limit unfolded, there were 13,034, Montanans registered with the state department of health to access medical cannabis. As of Nov. 30, nearly 4,700 of those cards were revoked.
In Flathead County, medical marijuana cardholders dropped from 1,567 before the repeal to 894 in the end of November.
Jon Ebelt, spokesperson with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, said as of Dec. 13, the agency received 1,300 applications since last week’s ruling. That total includes change request forms and new cardholder and provider applications.
“Of the 1,300 total applications, we have processed about 70 percent of them so far,” Ebelt wrote in a statement. “We feel the workload to this point is very manageable, but we will continue to monitor the situation and will respond accordingly.”
CASEY PALMER, owner of Natural Solutions in Kalispell, is a member of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which largely led the push for Initiative 182. Palmer said he dropped 47 cannabis patients in the three-month hiatus.
“Our businesses were choked … Just less than two years old, our business was starting to turn a profit when the shutdown happened,” Palmer said. “The clients and the need are still there, but it’s going to take some time.”
Palmer said beyond regaining his clients, he has to rebuild his stock. When the rollback hit, providers were limited to 12 flowering plants to serve three clients.
“I’m having to start from scratch with seeds, and that takes time, two to three months at least,” Palmer said. “And you can’t have the plants growing until you have the cardholders on your books.”
Palmer said with his reduced products, he’ll have to serve patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. For the remaining patients, he said they’ll have to find a place to reinstate their doctor recommendations to reapply for medical marijuana cards.
MANY OF those people are turning to Alternative Wellness of Northwest Montana, a clinic that connects patients with doctors to obtain medical marijuana recommendations and renewals.
Tara Holloway, owner of the Kalispell clinic, said a doctor’s recommendation is valid for a year. But once a card is revoked, the recommendation needs to be reinstated.
“Since the ruling, my phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people trying to get reinstated,” Holloway said. “By the time I hang up one call, I have eight new voicemails.”
A visit for a medical marijuana recommendation typically costs $150. Since medical marijuana is still not approved by the The Food and Drug Administration, it’s not covered by insurance.
Holloway said if a patient has met with one of the clinic’s doctors in the last year, the clinic is able to reissue the recommendation for $30.
“We’re doing all we can for these patients who have been thrown around,” Holloway said. “There’s a lot of costs for medical marijuana patients, and we’re looking at even more coming.”
Part of Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed biennial budget released in November includes a 6 percent tax on medical marijuana, which is predicted to total $2.6 million over two years. The money would be slotted to run the Montana Marijuana Program, which reviews cardholder applications. Remaining funds would be open to other state needs.
Lawmakers are set to vote on the proposed tax and the rest of the governor’s budget in the 2017 legislative session, which begins next month.
Holloway said it would be frustrating to see medical marijuana tagged with a tax while federally-recognized medications are tax-free.
“I would hate to see that pass onto the patients who are already paying out-of-pocket,” she said. “At the same time, this gives the program legitimacy. The proposed tax shows me they know we’re here to stay.”
PALMER SAID while he and his clients feel like they’re jumping through hoops, he’s excited for the foundation I-182 creates.
Along with removing provider client limits, the initiative allows people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder to use medical marijuana. It also sets the groundwork for cannabis product testing and periodic provider inspections.
“There’s just going to be a new level to adhere to … and I think that will give us some more validation in our industry,” Palmer said. “It’s hard to image with all that’s coming, state lawmakers will ignore voters for a third time and try to remove this medicine for those who need it. But they’ve done it before.”