HELENA — The number of medical-marijuana cardholders registered with the state rose slightly in August, new statistics from the state registry showed.
As of last Friday, 8,849 Montanans had medical-marijuana cards, an increase of five people from the previous month, according to the registry kept by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The July total of 8,844 medical-marijuana cardholders was the first time since May 2011 that the number of cardholders had increased. The number of Montana medical-marijuana cardholders, formerly called “patients,” peaked at 31,522 in May 2011.
The numbers started falling after the 2011 Legislature passed a much more restrictive state law, making it more difficult for people to qualify for a card.
The Montana Cannabis Industry Association challenged the law last year. In June 2011, state District Judge James Reynolds of Helena blocked parts of the law from taking effect.
Both the association and the state have appealed parts of Reynolds’ ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. The court heard oral arguments in the case on May 30, but has not issued a decision.
Medical marijuana supporters also obtained enough signatures last year to put the 2011 law on the November 2012 ballot as a referendum. Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to retain or reject the law.
Medical marijuana advocates have said the declining number of state cardholders does not mean fewer people are consuming pot in the state. They said a number of medical-marijuana cardholders dropped their state cards and instead are buying marijuana illegally from the black market.
The state statistics from August showed the average age of a medical-marijuana cardholder at 46.
By age group, 29.5 percent of the medical marijuana cardholders are between 51 and 60 years old, while 20.7 percent are between 41 and 50. The statistics show 19.3 percent are between 31 and 40 and 15.8 percent are between 21 and 30.
The registry showed 1.5 percent of cardholders are between 71 and 80 years old, while 0.2 percent are between 81 and 90.
At the younger end, 1.4 percent 18-20 years old. Only two cardholders, or 0.02 percent, are less than age 18, with the 2011 law imposing additional requirements for minors to get cards.
Severe or chronic pain is the most frequent reason cited by cardholders in obtaining state cards. A total of 5,512 people cited that reason, while 1,124 cited intractable nausea or vomiting. Patients can report more than one condition.
By county, Gallatin had the most medical marijuana cardholders with 1,463, followed by Yellowstone with 923 and Missoula with 909. Next were Flathead with 872 cardholders, followed by Silver Bow with 717, Lewis and Clark with 536, Ravalli with 511 and Cascade with 289.
The number of providers, formerly called caregivers, dropped to 395 in August from 399 in July. They are the people authorized to grow and sell marijuana to cardholders for medicinal purposes.
Provider numbers also have declined rapidly from their peak of 4,848 in March 2011. The 2011 law prohibited providers from selling medical marijuana for money, although that provision has been temporarily enjoined.
In addition, provider numbers have declined after federal raids of more than two dozen Montana marijuana growing businesses in March 2011, with a number of people charged and convicted of crimes.
The number of physicians associated with cardholders currently enrolled in the program continued to fall as well, decreasing to 219 in August from 224 in July. The number of physicians involved with medical marijuana cardholders hit a peak at 365 in July 2011.
One physician has between 2,641 and 2,650 cardholders, while another has between 1,121 and 1,130 patients.