HELENA — The number of registered medical marijuana cardholders registered with the state continues to fall, dipping to below 11,000 last month.
As of April 30, 10,640 Montanans were registered as medical marijuana users with the state, down from 11,993 as of the end of March, for an 11.2 percent drop, according to registry statistics kept by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The April total is the lowest monthly number since the 7,339 medical marijuana cardholders (formerly called patients) started registering as of Dec. 31, 2009.
The total number of Montana medical marijuana cardholders peaked at 31,522 on May 31, 2011, a month before most parts of a much more restrictive law passed by the 2011 Legislature took effect.
Despite the falling numbers, marijuana advocates have estimated there are 100,000 Montanans who regularly use pot. The tougher state law, they said, has driven more people to buy marijuana illegally on the black market instead of going through the state program.
The latest statistics also showed 414 Montana providers (formerly called caregivers) were registered through April 30, down from 421 as of March 31. Providers are the people legally authorized to grow and sell marijuana to cardholders for medicinal purposes. The number of providers peaked at 4,848 in March 2011.
The number of physicians licensed to recommend medical marijuana to patients remained at 254 on April 30, the same total reported at the end of March. Their numbers peaked at 365 as of June 30, 2011.
In 2004, by 62 percent to 38 percent, Montanans approved an initiative to legalize the use of marijuana for certain medicinal purposes.
The number of medical marijuana cardholders began soaring in 2010 after a series of "cannabis caravans" traveled the state and signed up thousands of patients, often after a consultation with a physician in person or via the Internet that lasted only several minutes. Medical pot storefronts sprung up around Montana.
The Republican-controlled 2011 Legislature passed a bill to repeal the 2004 law that legalized medical pot in Montana, but Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it.
After that, the Legislature passed another bill aimed at making it more difficult to legally buy and sell medical marijuana. Schweitzer let it become law without his signature.
The total numbers of medical marijuana cardholders and providers have dropped greatly since passage of the 2011 law.
Another major factor cited by industry officials was the series of federal raids of several dozen marijuana growing and selling operations in March 2011. A number of people involved with those businesses have been charged and entered guilty pleas in federal court.
A Helena district judge on June 30, 2011, temporarily blocked parts of the 2011 state law from going into effect the next day.
On May 30, the Montana Supreme Court will hear the state's appeal of that decision, along with an appeal by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, over other parts of that decision.
Opponents of the tougher marijuana law last year obtained enough signatures to put it on the November 2012 ballot as a referendum. Montanans then will have a chance to decide whether to retain or reject the law.
In addition, some groups are gathering signatures for a separate ballot measure to legalize the possession, sale and consumption of marijuana by adults.