MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer GREAT FALLS
Jason Christ lit a bowl of homegrown marijuana outside the Great Falls Civic Center, not worried that the police station was right around the corner. Christ was taking a break Friday from teaching hundreds of people inside the center how to get stateissued medical marijuana cards. It was one of the many pot clinics he has held throughout Montana as founder of the Montana Caregivers Network aimed at easing fears and letting people know medical use of marijuana is legal. "They need to know that," said Christ, who suffers from chronic pain. "No one knows the law, no one knows what it is. We help with that." Everything about the event was meant to make marijuana users feel at ease. Songs by Bob Marley, Creedence Clearwater Revival and other rock favorites played on a boom box, and two Marijuana plants stood at the entrance of the reserved room down the hall from the city clerk's office. There was even a doctor to help people certify they have a medical condition, and some attendees were schooled about growing pot for themselves or others and becoming a statesanctioned caregiver. For those with certain debilitating medical conditions such as cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, severe muscle spasms or chronic pain, such clinics are their ticket to legally obtaining pot. And the demand is high. Clinics held by Christ in different cities almost every week are sold out a month in advance, he said. In Great Falls, the only walk-ins accepted were people with a terminal disease. Christ began his one-stop clinics a few months ago after seeing that many people were too intimidated to figure out the law or find a doctor to certify a medical condition. Interest in medical marijuana cards has spiked in Montana, in part due to such clinics, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, the agency that issues the pot cards. The number of permit-holders has almost quadrupled since the start of the year. About 4,500 people now hold the cards, and there are 1,429 registered caregivers statewide. Christ is a caregiver, meaning he can legally possess up to an ounce of pot for each of his six patients and one for himself. He can also grow as many as six plants for each patient and six for himself. A person holding just a potuser permit is restricted to having six plants and one ounce of smokeable marijuana at any given time. On Friday, Christ carried four ounces of pot in his backpack. The clinic was held just a few days after the Obama administration loosened guidelines on federal prosecution of medical marijuana cases. The Justice Department told federal prosecutors that targeting people who use or provide medical marijuana in strict compliance with state laws was not a good use of their time. "That is a huge thing," said Christ. "I said, 'yay,' really, really loud." Montana is one of 14 states that allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes. The others are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. In Montana, it was a popular idea with voters easily passing as a ballot initiative in 2004 after the Legislature rejected the notion. Even though it's legal, there is still a stigma attached to smoking pot. And watching someone pull out a bag in broad daylight on busy Central Avenue in Great Falls makes a person start looking over their shoulder. The Montana Caregivers Network has been asked by some convention centers where clinics were held to not bother coming back. At Friday's clinic, the onsite doctor and most of those in attendance didn't want their names used. Some worried their parole officer would hassle them or the Department of Veterans Affairs would take issue. They also didn't want to reveal they have a bunch of marijuana plants growing at their house. Not everyone was afraid of coming out publicly. Rob Mathews sees the situation as an inevitable step toward society fully recognizing the benefits of marijuana. He believes, like many, that a taxed and regulated marijuana trade would fill government coffers and end much of the illegal drug trade. "They just need to legalize it, man. It's time," he said, adding he suffers from chronic pain. "They just need to do it and be done with it."