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Montana Medical Marijuana Patients Stuck in Legal Limbo

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Sarah Baugh grew up a pastor's daughter, adamantly against drugs.

She would never dream of touching marijuana. But Baugh had a disorder that made her seize and tremble and that - eventually - would make her see marijuana as medicine.

Baugh was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 15. The disorder would strike her suddenly, sometimes in mid-sentence. She'd daze off, and could hear those around her but was unable to focus or respond.

Other times her seizures were more noticeable. The episodes would start with Baugh acting differently and making no sense. Her husband might ask her how she was doing, and she'd say "green." Then she'd fall to the ground, shaking, and her eyes would roll into the back of her head.

When she woke up, she would feel humiliated and confused, unsure of who she was or where she was. It would take her three to four days to recover.

The disorder has been more than an inconvenience in Baugh's life. It's meant losing jobs, not being able to get a driver's license, and dropping out of college.

Baugh wanted to find a way to treat her sickness, but the conventional medical treatments she'd been trying for a decade all failed or made her hurt badly. So Baugh tried something different: marijuana.

Baugh qualified for and began using a medical marijuana card in 2009 after moving to Helena from South Carolina. It put a stop to her shaking and spasms, and she hasn't had a seizure in more than a year - progress she calls a miracle.

But in less than a month, changes are coming to the medical marijuana industry that terrify Baugh and make her think she'll be back to her old self, having seizures again because she can't get the treatment she needs.

On July 1, the state's new medical marijuana law is scheduled to be fully in effect, putting an end to legally buying and selling marijuana in Montana. For some patients, that will mean trying to grow their own, looking to the streets, or just giving up on medical marijuana.

But those who support the new law say it's necessary to control an industry that's rampantly grown from 86 patients in March 2005 to the current number of patients, which is more than 30,000.

Still, medical marijuana advocates continue to fight against the law; they hope to overturn it with court actions and petitions. But if it does go into effect as planned, what will it mean to the use of medical marijuana in Montana?


Montana's history of legalized marijuana began in November 2004, when voters passed an initiative that allowed certain patients with specific medical conditions to use a limited amount of marijuana. That made Montana the 10th state to pass a medical marijuana law, even though under federal law it's illegal to grow, sell, purchase or use the drug.

Starting several years ago, medical marijuana users in the state began to increase tremendously. To the public, it seemed anybody who wanted a card could get one. People in their 20s and 30s who appeared to have no serious ailments were becoming patients, getting legal and easy access to the drug.

And the number of caregivers, who provide marijuana to patients, grew from 35 in March 2005 to about 4,600 currently.

Billboards went up proclaiming the price of an ounce of weed. Newspaper pages showed huge, close-up photos of the drug. Storefronts opened near schools, displaying plants on their front steps or the drug in their windows.

Even now, caretakers and patients admit the industry had gotten out of control and was abused.

People who had supported the 2004 initiative started contacting their legislators, telling them that this was not what they had voted for. Jeff Essmann, a Republican senator from Billings, was one who heard their complaints.

"When the initiative was promoted, it was all about helping a small group of chronically ill people get some relief," he said. "The voters I talked to felt like they'd been lied to."

Essmann pointed out that the words "sale of marijuana" never appeared in the original initiative, nor did the words "cannabis industry." Yet those things came of the law.

"If they wanted to legalize marijuana," Essmann said, "they should've put that initiative on the ballot and been honest."

Senate Bill 423, the law that in less than 30 days will essentially undo the medical marijuana industry, was a collaborative effort. But Essmann became the senator who carried it through the Legislature.

The bill was controversial, decried as imperfect by many critics, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer. But it still became law.

And now many are wondering: How is it going to affect me?


For patients, many of the changes will make acquiring medical marijuana a challenge.

For example, patients must now show more evidence that they're experiencing debilitating pain. For some, that may mean providing an X-ray, an MRI, or a diagnosis from two physicians, rather than one.

If they do qualify for a card, the best option for obtaining marijuana is growing their own.

That's because caregivers will be restricted to helping three patients, and are barred from accepting anything of value, including money, for any services or products they provide. Those who remain caregivers will be volunteers, working for free.

And most can't afford that.

So patients who can't find a caregiver will have to grow their own restricted number of plants. But that option opens up a whole new set of obstacles.


Patients who want to grow their own plants will most likely be able to if they own their own home. But if they rent, a landlord's permission must be granted. Even then, the rented space would have to be large enough to accommodate a marijuana grow operation.

Assuming those conditions could be met, a patient's next dilemma would be finding a seed to start their plants. Patients are allowed to have four mature plants, 12 seedlings, and one ounce of usable marijuana - but the law doesn't make clear whether it's legal to obtain seeds to begin those original plants.

Essmann said the legality of getting seeds is ambiguous in the new law, but he added that it was also not specified in the initiative.

If a patient did get a seed, there would still be difficulties in growing their plants. Maintaining marijuana requires special lights and timers, as well as the right soil and chemicals. Then there's the time that has to be put in - the daily watering and trimming and monitoring.

Even then, things can go wrong. Spider mites, mold or other impurities can ruin an entire crop. And then the hundreds of dollars spent to start up the grow operation would be wasted.

The law makes it clear that only those patients with debilitating sicknesses can use medical marijuana. They're people with diseases like cancer, multiple sclerosis, or AIDS. And that means some could be physically incapable of growing their own marijuana.

Brenda White, a local medical marijuana patient, uses the treatment for tendonitis and fibromyalgia. The latter gives her a body cold from head to toe, triggering pain and aches all over.

"I hurt, period," said White, 51.

But the marijuana relieves that pain and helps her to sleep, and White's already thinking about what she'll do if the law is fully enacted July 1.

"There's probably a 90 percent chance that I'll be buying it on the black market," she said. "And I don't want to do that."

White lives in an apartment, and her landlord already told her she couldn't grow marijuana there. And White doesn't think there's any way she can find someone who would grow pot for her and give it away for free.

So what can patients in her situation do?

"Just because it's difficult doesn't mean it's impossible," Essmann said. "If it provides her that much relief and she has anyone in her life that is compassionate toward her, I'm certain she can find some assistance."

Essmann suggested those who can't grow the marijuana themselves ask friends or family members to do it.

But White said all her family members live in apartments, too.

Baugh, the patient with epilepsy, said she's treated her illness with a combination of using her own marijuana plants and buying the drug from providers. That way, if her own crop fails, she won't be left without treatment.

To ingest marijuana, Baugh prefers to eat a butter infused with cannabis for treatment, and she said the plants she'd be allowed to grow wouldn't create enough raw product to make the butter.

"There is no way I'll be able to support my medical needs and not break this law," she said.

Essmann said that when the bill was going through the Legislature, information was sought on how much marijuana was needed to make edible products, but he said there wasn't any testimony on that subject. He added that while patients cannot pay for marijuana, they could pay for advice on how to care for their own plants from anyone who is not a registered provider.


Physicians and caregivers are also looking to the impacts that could come to them July 1. Kate Cholewa, a board member for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, said some doctors have already begun raising their prices for medical marijuana patients.

That's because if doctors write certifications for 25 patients or more in a 12-month period, they will be reviewed by the board of medical examiners - and they'll have to pay the board's costs while being reviewed.

Other physicians are simply choosing not to prescribe marijuana any longer.

And some caregivers have already quit or closed their businesses. Others are still hanging on, maintaining a few plants in case the law is blocked before July 1.

Law enforcement officials are also preparing by going over the new law and being ready for July 1, when they'll be on hand to help local businesses and caregivers destroy their marijuana plants if any are left.

Ron Price, the Bozeman chief of police, said caregivers can get rid of their marijuana in any way they choose between now and July 1, but said local law enforcement officials will be available that day to help dispose of the drugs.

Price added that he doesn't think the police department will see any significant impacts if the law goes into effect, even if more people turn to the streets to find marijuana.

"I don't necessarily think it's going to make our job any busier," he said, "but it will change the nature and flavor of how we investigate reports and deal with issues."


But there's still a chance the law could be blocked before it's fully enacted July 1. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association and eight plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit to overturn Senate Bill 423, claiming it violates constitutional rights.

They're also seeking an injunction that would temporarily keep the new law from going into effect while the litigation was ongoing. However, they won't know if that injunction will be granted until at least June 20 or 21 when hearings are scheduled, according to Cholewa.

And in a collaborative effort from those in the medical marijuana industry, there are plans to pass around petitions with the hopes of getting enough signatures for a referendum, which would put the future of the industry in voters' hand.

Still, as June days begin to pass and parts of the new law are gradually implemented, caregivers, patients and others find themselves in limbo.

Will this be the last window of time in Montana when people will be able to legally buy and sell marijuana? Or is this just one more hill to climb before the buy-and-sell medical marijuana industry comes back for good?

For Montana, those answers will largely be up to the courts, the signers of petitions, and the voters.

News Hawk- Jacob Ebel 420 MAGAZINE
Source: bozemandailychronicle.com
Author: Carly Flandro
Contact: Contact Us
Copyright: The Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Website: Montana medical marijuana patients stuck in legal limbo
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