HELENA — The second phase of Montana's new medical marijuana overhaul will go into effect Wednesday, allowing the state health department to issue pot cards under new regulations — but patients are confused about what happens next under the new restrictive law.
When Gov. Brian Schweitzer allowed the law to go into effect May 14, the power to issue cards under the old marijuana law was immediately repealed for the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The new restrictive law isn't fully implemented until July 1, but on Wednesday the health department is granted emergency powers to issue new marijuana cards. After the law went into effect, the health department indicated they were writing those emergency rules.
The largest change for patients under the new law is a tighter definition of chronic pain, a diagnosis critics say was abused by patients not in need of the drug.
Now patients must give physical proof of chronic pain, like an X-ray, or have a second doctor confirm the diagnosis before they can receive a card.
There are a number of other changes to the card issuing process as well, including a requirement of Montana residency and tighter restrictions on the number of patients a doctor can proscribe cards to.
But information on the new rules and when they go into effect hasn't been entirely clear.
Health department officials have said they have stopped issuing cards at the moment. The agency's website indicates it will continue to accept new applications on the old application forms until June 20, but patients must meet the new pain requirements.
The health department has said the transition rules are confusing and the agency has changed its advice to patients about the new law several times.
Members of the medical marijuana community are equally flummoxed about what happens with the new law.
"At this point I don't think people know what to do," said Jim Gingery, a medical marijuana advocate. "There is just mass confusion among the patients."
The July 1 deadline will see the strictest of the new pot laws be implemented. Marijuana will no longer be able to be sold; it must be given away for free on compassionate grounds. Pot shops and growers must close their doors and Montanans looking to work as a volunteer marijuana provider must register with the health department and submit fingerprints for background checks.
Cards issued under the old law will still be valid until their expiration date. Information from lawmakers who drafted the law estimates around 8,000 cards will be subject to renewal by the end of 2011.
Overall the new law is intended to rein in the booming medical marijuana industry in Montana that has been the target of federal raids, including one in Helena earlier this month. Montana's U.S. attorney previously issued a warning against marijuana businesses.
The state has over 30,000 registered users, one of the highest ratios of registered pot patients to population of any of the 16 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical cannabis.