Nearly 90 percent of cannabis cardholders in Montana are without access to a legal provider, a roughly 300 percent increase since a Montana Supreme Court ruling went into effect Aug. 31 limiting medical marijuana providers to three clients.

Initiative 182 on election ballots mailed out last week aims to remove the three-client restriction and relax other conditions that came with the ruling. Supporters say the initiative will also add regulations to create a more responsible state marijuana program.

The recent restrictions arrived after the high court upheld a 2011 state law that rolled back much of the 2004 voter-approved Medical Marijuana Act.

Before the limit, there were 512 registered cannabis providers statewide, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. With the three-patient rule, providers were reduced to legally serving 1,536 of the state’s 13,034 patients registered with the program.

As of Sept. 14, at least 55 providers had dropped from the Montana Marijuana Program since the mandate rolled out – reducing the number of patients with access to a provider to 1,371.

“With a five-year legal battle bent on overturning … what voters asked for, I was always planning for the inevitable shutdown,” said Mike Eackers, owner of The Greenhause dispensary in Kalispell. “It doesn’t make it any easier to turn clients away who are in pain.”

In Flathead County, there’s 1,454 people registered to use medical marijuana and 69 cannabis providers – meaning 207 Flathead patients can buy cannabis from a provider.

James Hafner, 58, is one of the three patients Eackers kept. Hafner has a disorder called chronic intestinal pseudo-obstruction, which slowly breaks down a body’s ability to digest food.

“I have a tube leading to my heart that pumps nutrients through my body. But I eventually won’t get to eat any solid foods,” Hafner said.

For nearly a decade, Hafner has learned how to function with daily spasms and nausea, and sometimes goes days without eating. He said he tried opiates, but felt sicker on the medicine.

“You have to feel bad for people who can’t get their meds,” he said. “For me, it’s the only thing that helps. I feel the pain relax from my toe nails to the tip of my head.”

SENATE BILL 423 was created when many politicians and state officials believed the 2004 vote extended marijuana beyond patients with pain to people simply looking to get high.

At its height, the number of registered users in Montana grew to more than 30,000 people.

Those who shaped the bill believed controlling the number of people a provider served would keep marijuana away from large-scale manufacturing, according to the high court’s majority opinion written by Justice Beth Baker.

The Montana marijuana industry challenged the law as soon as it was born, and it stalled in courts until the high court upheld nearly all its provisions this year.

Jon Ebelt, spokesman with the state health department, said the department sent 8,600 people registered with the Montana Marijuana Program 30-day temporary provider cards that allowed people who hadn’t listed a new provider to become their own. Those cards expired Sept. 30. He said it’s unclear how many of those people began growing their own marijuana or registered with a new provider.

Eackers said he doubts his roughly 50 clients without a provider will be able to grow their own medicine.
“I don’t think the state understands the agricultural aspect of growing medical-grade marijuana,” Eackers said. “And realistically, my patients can’t. For one thing, no where in the law is there a way for them to legally buy seeds. And another, creating strains for certain symptoms is difficult and takes time.”

Eackers said even if a client somehow had the seeds and the money to begin the project – he estimated at least $1,000 – it takes months for the plant to blossom. He said he would have given clients the plants he was forced to dispose of when he had to reduce his supply to 12 plants as part of the rollback – but giving away the plants would also be breaking the law.

Eackers is one of the more than 40,000 signatures that pushed Initiative 182 onto the 2016 ballot, which would do away with a provider-patient limit.

“This will pass because Montanans want a workable program,” he said. “But then I have to start the whole process over again – grow the strains I lost. My patients will be without their medicine for five months, and that’s just if the restrictions are lifted the day after elections.”

ACCORDING TO the proposal, Initiative 182 allows for medical marijuana providers to submit a sample to a testing lab to measure potency and to ensure it’s free of toxins. It also mandates licenses and inspections for providers and testing labs. It extends the eligibility list by including people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Steve Zabawa, founder of Safe Montana, said those requirements don’t go far enough. Safe Montana spent $92,000 on a failed ballot initiative that would have repealed the Montana Marijuana Act – making cannabis illegal for any purpose. After the measure didn’t meet signature requirements to qualify for the ballot, Zabawa created a campaign against I-182. He said the initiative doesn’t create enough restrictions to ensure the drug won’t be used recreationally.

“We believe in medical marijuana, we just don’t believe in pot shops on every corner,” Zabawa said. “We want to see dignity brought to medical Marijuana … human-tested medicine, clinical training for those handing it out and warning labels on the bottle.”

So far, Safe Montana has spent about $50,000 on commercials, billboards and ads against the measure. Most of the funding has come out of Zabawa’s pocket, he said.

Jeff Krauss, Treasurer of Montana Citizens for I-182, said the organization has raised about $11,000 from voters for the initiative. Krauss, a three-time Bozeman mayor and former member of the Montana Board of Regents, said the organization has received support from a variety of voices – especially since the initiative pushes for more regulation than the Montana Marijuana Act created.

“The real grassroots effort was getting the petition qualified for the ballot, that’s when the voters began to speak – right there with more than 40,000 signatures,” he said.

AFTER THE 2004 Montana Marijuana Act passed, Dr. Alex Bokor of Kalispell said he heard about the traveling clinics where doctors wrote hundreds of recommendations a day. At the time, he was taking a break from his practice, so he didn’t think about the issue too long. But the events in 2011 pulled him into the conversation.
“It seemed to me what the Legislature had done was practically make it inaccessible to most people,” he said.
Bokor poured himself into understanding studies of the drug. By 2014, he was receiving patients seeking recommendations for cannabis.

“It became clearer and clearer that there were significant medical uses for cannabis,” he said. “Then, I discovered there was a lack of physicians in the Flathead area willing or allowed to recommend.”

Bokor said he’s slow to recommend medical marijuana. When evaluating patients, he reviews their medical history, requires each person to fill out a questionnaire about their symptoms, and performs a roughly hour-long physical exam.

He said while cannabis doesn’t offer cures, the drug is important for some patients’ quality of life – especially when they can’t afford a procedure to remove their chronic pain.

“We’re still in the first phases of using this … but I think 10 years from now, we’ll see that a physician can prescribe certain strains of cannabis and certain dose like other medication,” he said.

MICHELLE RENSEL of Kalispell was one of the patients cut off from her provider in August.

“I’m not mad, I know it was a hard decision,” Rensel said. “But, if I-182 doesn’t pass …”

Her husband, Richard jumped in, “It means we’re moving.”

Rensel, 44, started feeling sick in 2003. It began with a muscle spasm in her lower back that shot into her shoulders. She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic disorder that causes pain to the touch.

Treatment began with numbing injections of Lidocaine. When that didn’t’ work, doctors tried nerve burns along her hips, then low-dose opioids. Then the doses increased.

In 2008, she left her job due to the pain, which continued to take new shapes. Her doctor at the time began talking to her about the possibilities cannabis could offer.

“I wasn’t against medical marijuana,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready to try it – I had two little kids and I didn’t want to embarrass my family.”

In 2011, Rensel had her first evaluation to receive medical marijuana. She said it was the first time her pain felt manageable.

“There were eight years of trying everything else,” Richard said. “I would get up in the morning and she would be in bed, I would come home after work and she would be in bed. That’s changed.”

The same year, they watched the future of Rensel’s medicine circle through the court system. Rensel said she wasn’t concerned at first – she thought if people abused the system, they would be punished by laws already in place.

“This makes me feel like people think I’m a criminal or useless,” she said. “We’re normal people, had normal jobs while trying to raise a family, and I got sick. Medical marijuana doesn’t make you useless, what will make you useless is chronic pain.”

Rensel said if I-182 doesn’t pass, she would have to rely on opioids again or leave Montana. “I guess that’s not really true, I’d leave,” she said.

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker 420 MAGAZINE ®
Full Article: Montana Ballot Initiative Looks To Roll Back Restrictions
Author: Katheryn Houghton
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Photo Credit: Aaric Bryan
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