Class points to needed fixes to medical marijuana law

 By Kay Braddock

Montana’s medical marijuana law is in dire need of fine-tuning. That was the message Mark Long of the Montana Department of Justice Narcotics Bureau put forth to local officials last month during a two-hour presentation. 
“It’s salvageable, the law that we have, but it’s going to take a major overhaul,” Long said. 
Long, who has been meeting with an interim legislative committee addressing the issue, said current loopholes within the state’s law leaves local law enforcement hamstrung. He says the law’s original wording was no accident.
“People say it’s a vague law. It’s not vague,” Long said. “They test drove it in 10 other states before it came here, so believe me it’s put this way by design.”
The 2004 voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana passed with a 62 percent margin. Montana was the eleventh state in the union to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes and is now one of 14 states legalizing the use. None of Montana’s neighboring states have done so.
Although backers of the 2004 initiative introduced medical marijuana as a way to help alleviate pain for cancer patients and others facing end-of-life conditions, Long points to abuses occurring due to the law’s wording which allows coverage for patients suffering from chronic pain and nausea. 
“It’s pretty wide open now,” Long said. “Anybody who wants a card can get one now pretty easy.”
To prove his point, Long recalled three instances where he attended  “traveling clinics” in western Montana where doctors offered certifications to those seeking a medical marijuana card. Patients must return a state application along with a doctor’s certification and $25 before a medical marijuana card can be issued. A doctor’s certification costs $250.
“The first time I went in there I started out telling (the doctor) a real story, like how I got a bad neck,” Long recalled. “And he goes, ‘Can you just get to the point here Mark? We’ve got 400 people waiting behind you.’” After telling the doctor that he suffered from neck pain, he was given the certification. He estimated not more than 20 seconds was spent between him and the doctor issuing the certification. His other two trips to traveling clinics offered similar circumstances, where “canned language” was used on the certification.
Besides the apparent ease at obtaining a doctor’s certification for a medical marijuana card, Long also points to other concerns. The following contains a wish list of changes to the law that were addressed during the presentation:
•  Provide local law enforcement with a list of names each month of caregivers and where grow operations are located within their respective counties. Currently those in law enforcement are only given the number of caregivers. 
•  The way the law reads now medical marijuana cardholders can grow their own plants and have a caregiver. Instead of “caregiver and patient” providing medical marijuana, many in law enforcement would like the law to read “caregiver or patient.” Currently caregivers and patients are both allowed six plants and one ounce of usable marijuana. This allows a married couple, who are patients and caregivers to legally possess 24 plants and four ounces of usable marijuana.
•  Currently there is no limit to the number of patients a caregiver can have. With caregivers allowed to provide six plants and one usable ounce of marijuana for each patient, Long says some caregivers have more patients than physical space to grow plants.
•  Require cardholders to have their cards with them when possessing medical marijuana. Currently patients are not required to carry their cards.
•  Restrict children from being inside a grow operation. Some operations contain dangerous wiring and chemicals to aid weed oil extraction, which increases fire concerns.
•  Create an oversight component allowing officials from law enforcement, health and fire departments to inspect grow operations.
While Long agrees there are benefits of using medical marijuana for those suffering from diseases like cancer, he points to statewide statistics that he says clearly prove abuses exist. 
There are 3,500 caregivers in the state of Montana, and 16,000 cardholders. Ninety percent of cardholders are listed as needing medical marijuana for chronic pain while 10 percent list diseases. Those who are in their 20’s are listed as the state’s largest group of cardholders while those in their 30’s are the state’s second largest group of cardholders. The oldest cardholder in Montana is 90, while the youngest is 2. Twenty-four minors have been issued a medical marijuana card.
Long also questions the notion that smoking pot isn’t risky. 
“Just because nobody dies right away from it doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” Long said, pointing to car accidents that have occurred due to impaired driving as a result of using the drug. 
Long also points to the criminal element marijuana naturally draws with it.
  “Maybe the people themselves that are growing the pot might be very peaceful, pot-smoking, peace-loving hippies – the thugs that are all around them might not be.”

Published July 21, 2010

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