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Medical marijuana buds

Medical marijuana buds from the Higher Standard dispensary in Helena.

The number of Montana medical marijuana card holders has surged 342% in the last three years, according to data provided to a state legislative interim committee on Thursday. 

That climb in cardholders began after voters passed Initiative 182, which freed the medical marijuana industry from measures that saw nearly all — 93% — of cardholders lose access to providers prior to the ballot initiative. Today, 34,413 Montanans have medical marijuana cards compared to 7,785 in October 2016.

This statistic and others were presented Thursday to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which oversees the industry as changes take effect from Senate Bill 265, passed during the 2019 legislative session. The bill sought to address the industry's "growing pains"  since voters revived it in 2016.

Chief among them is the "untethering" of patients from a single medical marijuana provider, legislative research analyst Sue O'Connell told the committee. This change — which will take hold sometime before July 1, 2020, O'Connell said — allows cardholders to shop different providers who might specialize in different products.

And while the number of those cardholders has been thriving, the number of providers has decreased by 37%, from 420 to 265, in the last year alone, according to the brief provided to the committee. Much of that decrease has been in the group of providers growing for 20 or fewer patients, suffering a 64% decline. The number of providers growing plants for more than 100 cardholders has increased from 50 in July 2018 to 66 this month. 

And while they're growing in number, cardholders are sometimes required to drive out of county to get to a provider. Dawson County, for example, has 216 cardholders today but no provider. Richland County next door has two providers, but the other three adjacent counties, McCone, Prairie and Wibaux, all have none.

State code also requires the legislative research office to report to the interim committee on doctors who certify medical marijuana card holders. According to the report, eight physicians certified more than 1,000 cardholders each, and one of those doctors provided written certifications for more than 7,000 individuals this month alone. 

The Montana Board of Medical Examiners is required to report the number of complaints, as well as the disciplinary actions, for physicians providing medical marijuana certifications for patients. From July 1, 2018, through May 31, 2019, the board received three complaints about its licensees regarding these certifications; two were closed in an administrative process and one was dismissed by the board, according to the report.

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During the fiscal year beginning July 2018, no physicians were disciplined by the board for their practices in the medical marijuana field, the report states.

The state has sought to wrangle the medical marijuana industry that was originally passed by voters in 2004. The initial system had "minimal oversight," a Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson told the Missoulian earlier this month.

After several rounds of raids by federal law enforcement on dispensaries across the state, the 2011 Legislature imposed conditions that included limiting providers to three patients.

Those changes went into effect in 2016, after the Supreme Court upheld the three-patient rule at the end of a lengthy legal battle. Within the year, voters again passed I-182 repealing the 2011 measures and sending the Legislature back to work on a legitimate system.

What emerged in 2017 was a seed-to-sale tracking system, believed to be the best tool for transparency to ensure marijuana in the medical program wasn't coming in from, or going out to, the black market. This year's Legislature further established DPHHS' tools in hearing contested cases with providers, and changed the space-to-grow rules for providers around the state. 

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