HELENA — A proposal to make it harder for people to get medical marijuana cards for severe and chronic pain drew plenty of opposition and little support at a hearing on Monday.
Senate Bill 170, by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, would require a panel of three physicians experienced in pain management to review and ultimately decide whether to approve or reject another doctor's recommendation that a patient be authorized to use medical marijuana for severe and chronic pain.
At present, only a single physician's authorization is needed.
At present, more than 20,000 people have obtained medical marijuana cards after claiming severe or chronic pain out of the 27,300 people who have obtained medical marijuana cards in Montana, according to state health statistics.
“It is a classification that frankly right now is pretty wide open, and it has allowed some certifying physicians to be pretty loose in the awarding of their diagnosis, over the phone, out of state without a full medical workup,” Essmann told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
His bill would change the diagnosis to severe and chronic pain, from severe or chronic pain, defining it as “severe, persistent and intractable pain” that is “unrelieved by standard medical treatments or medications” over a reasonable amount of time.
The certifying physician would prepare a report demonstrating that the patient has not responded to traditional forms of pain treatment. The report would go to the three-physician panel, which would have a teleconference to make the final decision.
“That part of the bill is intended to shut down the traveling circus situation we have now in Montana,” Essmann said.
He was referring to the “cannabis clinics” popular last year that often used out-of-state physicians in person or over the Internet to see people for a few minutes and authorize them to get medical marijuana cards.
The lone supporter of SB170 was Mark Long, representing the Montana Narcotics Officers Association, called the current medical marijuana situation “a joke.”
“We just need to close this loophole down so that the people who are just seeking drugs to get high and to make a profit have a little bit tougher time than they do right now,” Long said.
Sixteen people testified against it, with all but one of them either medical marijuana patients or involved in the industry. Most called the three-physician panel unnecessary, a step that would be unaffordable to many people.
Since being hit by a drunken driver, Valerie Hellermann said, she has had 25 surgeries, has three artificial joints and is in chronic pain.
“I have been to many pain specialists,” she said. “The drugs I have been offered were all highly addictive opiates.
“These drugs do alter the perception of pain. They made me drowsy, hallucinogenic at times and unable to participate in my life or hold a job. I wasn't able to think clearly.”
In contrast, the use of medical marijuana suggested by her longtime physician “allows me be alert, functional, able to work and participate fully and control my discomfort.”
“Why would my physician need to have his decision reviewed by a panel and pay a fee for prescribing cannabis?” Hellermann asked. “He doesn't have to do that to prescribe opiates.”
Amber Cox, 28, a college student from of Missoula said she is recovering from cancer but lives with pain. Medical marijuana helps her treat the pain, Cox said.
“This would turn currently law-abiding citizens into criminals,” she said of the bill.
Like others, Cox said medical marijuana didn't leave her with all the complications of narcotics she was prescribed.
“I haven't contemplated suicide since I stopped taking barbiturates,” she said.
Another medical marijuana user, Ken Lindeman, called the bill unfair to patients by imposing an unreasonable financial burden on them by requiring the three-doctor panel.
Lindeman also took after the Legislature, saying: “Representatives are not qualified to make medical recommendations. You guys can't write the rules on pain. This is why we've got doctors.”
Candace Payne, representing the Rimrock Foundation of Billings, which treats patients with addictions, said she is opposing all bills except those that repeal the entire Montana Medical Marijuana Act.
“This is a gateway drug for many people,” she said. “Fixing one area of the Medical Marijuana Act will not cure the problem. The entire act needs to repealed.”
The committee took no immediate action on the bill.