Following the Montana Supreme Court's September 11 ruling overturning an injunction on parts of the current medical marijuana law, the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) is now ordering a majority of the state's providers to decide which patients they will cancel from their rolls.
The directive is intended to bring the providers into conformity with the current requirements of the state's medical marijuana law without the injunction in effect. Today, DPHHS is mailing letters to 267 providers, leaving more than 5,400 patients without safe access to a medical marijuana provider.
"I spoke with my provider last week," said Doug Shaw, a 61-year-old patient in Libby, Montana. "He says I'm on my own now, and he doesn't know anyone sticking with the program."
"Where I am I supposed to go for medical marijuana?" Shaw asked. "Maybe the Legislature will provide it to me."
Shaw suffers from herniated discs, sciatic nerve damage, thyroid problems and pleural plaque from asbestos exposure. After experimenting with prescribed narcotics, he says medical marijuana was the only thing that provided him with relief without side effects.
Senate Bill 432 limits providers to three patients -- one of whom is almost always the provider himself or herself -- and prohibits all forms of compensation for those providing medical marijuana to patients. As a practical matter, the count is most often two because if a provider is also listed as a patient, he must grow his own and may serve only two additional patients. Of the nearly 300 medical marijuana providers in Montana, there are only 20 who are not also listed as a patient.
These and other provisions of the law were temporarily blocked following a lawsuit filed by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association in June of 2011 shortly before the law went into effect. The ruling last week removes these limits on the new law.
"The Legislature is finally getting what it wanted - the destruction of the voter-approved program originally put in place in 2004," said Chris Lindsey, president of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association. "The legislature set out to deny access to as many patients as possible, regardless of how needy they are or the opinion of their physician."
The day following the Supreme Court ruling, Larry Jent, State Senator representing District 32 (Gallatin County) and one of the only Democrats who supported SB 423, said "This was meant to be a de facto repeal, and it worked. That's why we did it that way."
Following the implementation of the current law in June 2011, the number of medical marijuana patients in the state plummeted. At its highest point in June of last year, there were 30,036 patients registered with the state.
Following implementation of the law, the number of patients steadily fell until it reached its lowest point in June of this year, settling at 8,844. In the months that followed, the numbers began to slowly increase until the ruling last week.
"It's hard to say how many patients will have to leave the program, but clearly the vast majority is out of luck," said Lindsey. "There aren't enough providers to go around, and for the truly sick - the ones the Legislature claims it supposedly tried to protect - growing their own marijuana is not a realistic option."
In November, voters will have the ability to repeal the current medical marijuana law entirely. Last summer, a group called Patients for Reform, Not Repeal secured enough signatures to put the current medical marijuana law before the voters to vote either "for" or "against" the law.
"With the recent Supreme Court ruling, voters can finally see what the legislature intended," Lindsey said."It is more important than ever that the voters regain control of their own program by voting against SB 423 on November 6."
In the mean time, nearly two-thirds of all state patients are on their own without any legal way to obtain medical marijuana unless they grow it themselves, which is unrealistic for most.
"I am too sick to grow marijuana and I have absolutely no idea how to grow it anyway," said Dianna, a patient in Yellowstone County who asked not to be identified. Dianna is diabetic and a cancer survivor.
"I've been through three providers since the law went into effect, and this is the final straw - I have absolutely no idea where to go," Dianna said. "I've been a patient since 2010, and now I have no options left.
"It makes no difference what my doctor thinks or what I think," Dianna said. "All that matters is what some politician thinks."