The number of medical-marijuana patients in Montana increased by more than 600 percent in 2009, taxing state regulators and embroiling city governments in disputes over how to regulate the new businesses emerging to meet that demand.
“It’s people starting to realize that there’s another alternative out there, and that they’re not going to be persecuted,” said Rich Abromeit of Montana Advanced Caregivers, a company in the Billings area that grows marijuana for about 55 patients.
Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people seeking a legal registration to use marijuana as a pain reliever surged from 830 to 6,069. That brings the total statewide to 7,339.
“Obviously, it’s an unanticipated workload,” said Roy Kemp, deputy administrator of the state’s Quality Assurance Division. The division of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services is charged with licensing medical marijuana patients and caregivers.
The spike in demand — along with concerns that the state law offers only vague guidelines about how to regulate a rapidly growing new industry — is leading some communities to temporarily restrict the opening of new medical-marijuana businesses.
On Monday, the Billings City Council voted to create a committee to examine whether there should be zoning restrictions on medical-marijuana businesses. Lewistown, Great Falls, Whitefish and Roundup have temporarily restricted new providers from opening their doors as they consider how to regulate the nascent industry.
“I don’t think there’re enough clear-cut guidelines, and I don’t think that’s good for either side of the story,” Roundup Mayor Bill Edwards said. “We’re just keeping an open mind with it. We’re not saying we’re not going to do it or we are going to do it, but if we do it, we want to do it right.”
No medical-marijuana businesses currently operate in Roundup, Edwards said. But Musselshell County is home to eight registered caregivers. To help the Roundup City Council decide how to proceed, a survey being sent out in the near future will query citizens as to whether they think businesses selling marijuana should be allowed to set up shop within city limits.
“They’ve overrided Montana state law,” Abromeit said. “I think it can happen anywhere that’s why I think that all of us need to be active here, instead of acting like it isn’t here. This has been here six years now.”
In 2004, voters overwhelmingly approved the state’s medical-marijuana law, which allows those suffering from chronic pain or terminal illnesses to possess six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana. Licensed caregivers can have six plants and one ounce for each of their patients.
Licensing and registration fees last year generated about $222,800 in state revenue, Kemp said. The Quality Assurance Division has one full-time employee who handles medical-marijuana permitting, a process it expects to accelerate when a new database for tracking requests launches in about six to eight weeks.
It currently takes about two months for the state to process applications, according to Jason Christ, executive director of the Montana Caregivers Network. Through a series of traveling clinics and a telephone hot line, the Missoula-based network claims to have helped 6,500 people register for medical-marijuana cards in the last six months.
“There’s no reason for caregivers or cities to be at odds with each other,” Christ said. “They need to work together.”
At the meeting Monday, Abromeit told Billings City Council members that he is available as a caregiver to help the committee with questions as they study the medical-marijuana trade.
Those who have licenses need to reassure the public by being more open about their business, while also investing in alarms and video cameras to ensure their product does not fall into the wrong hands, he said in an interview.
“I just think we really have an ethical responsibility to the community to make sure it doesn’t get out into the community,” Abromeit said.
By KAHRIN DEINES
February 14, 2010
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Increased demand for medical marijuana strains regulators