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Medical marijuana

A caregiver holds a sealed bag of medical marijuana.

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 — released this week from the state — since a law limiting providers to three patients took effect on Aug. 31.

A state spokesman said it’s not quite as bad as it looks. Others — the patients — disagree, with some reluctantly returning to pharmaceuticals — or nothing at all — to deal with their ailments until the outcome of an initiative on the November ballot decides their fate.

Jon Ebelt, spokesman for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said that “patients with no provider” are 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 more than 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.

That’s easier said than done, said Chris Lindsey.

Lindsey, senior legislative counsel of the Marijuana Policy Project, thinks it’s unrealistic that 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.

Patients' perspectives

Kati Wetch has had 18 brain and spinal surgeries for conditions she can best describe as a skull too small for a brain, which 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, 27, said she’s been in the Montana Marijuana Program for 11 years, almost since its inception, and that she was one of the first minors 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 said 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 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, because her partner is her provider. She and he 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.

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.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that despite the 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 Wetch's dispensary closed 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 on marijuana before the law went into effect and said she would run out of marijuana to treat painful muscle spasms in a week. She said she’d never buy it on the 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 Initiative 182 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 are too much.

How it happened

The new law effectively cutting off patients from medicine isn’t new at all. Senate Bill 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.

Back then, Montana Republicans held the majority in the Legislature and, led by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, aimed to dismantle the 2004 medical marijuana program even Democrats agreed had gotten out of hand.

State Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, is listed a primary sponsor 2011's SB 423, but he’s no fan.

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

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

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.

Immediately challenged by the Montana marijuana industry, SB 423 languished in the courts until two weeks ago. The Montana Supreme Court reversed the ruling of a lower court earlier this year that had prohibited the law from being implemented. 

Now a ballot initiative, I-182, has been approved for the fall ballot. Sponsored by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, the measure would remove the provisions brought by SB 423.

Attorney General Tim Fox denied appeals by medical marijuana patients and the health department to delay the law’s implementation further until after Election Day, when voters might pass I-182.

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

Back to pharmaceuticals

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

The Shipleys — married 48 years — didn’t have the budget for Johnny Shipley to stock up before Aug. 31 either. He didn’t even bother renewing his medical marijuana card. He said others are in worse pain than he is, 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,” Johnny Shipley said.

Marijuana helped both Shipleys 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,” Johnny Shipley said.

Without marijuana for himself, Johnny 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,” Johnny Shipley said.

Johnny's PTSD isn’t a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in Montana, but if voters pass I-182 in November, it would be, in addition to eliminating patient limits for providers and reforming many other parts of the law. Johnny Shipley is counting on it.