HELENA - Although a Dec. 7 ruling allowed medical marijuana dispensaries to immediately open, providers are struggling to get patients reauthorized and to stock their shelves with product.

Voters passed ballot initiative I-182 to lift the three-patient limit that required dispensaries to close their doors in August, but a clerical error threatened to keep the law from going into effect until July 1. Helena District Judge James Reynolds said the wording was clearly an error and shouldn’t prevent sick people from accessing medical marijuana.

Helena Buds is now open for business, but owner Joe Fabrizio is struggling to interpret a law that he says is ambiguous, and to prepare for the possibility of a state sales tax on medical marijuana.

Fabrizio said he’s mostly doing patient consultations while he waits for a majority of his patients to get reauthorized. When dispensaries had to close, cardholders could either become their own provider or lose their patient status.

Fabrizio said he encouraged patients to fill out the form to become their own provider, even if they didn’t plan to grow their own marijuana, to maintain their status as a cardholder. It costs $125 to get a medical referral and a $75 state fee to become a cardholder, which has to be repaid if patients lose their status.

If patients own their own home, it was no problem to become their own provider. If patients rented their home, they had 30 days to have their landlord sign a notarized form, essentially granting them permission to grow marijuana.

“A lot of people didn’t want to ask their landlord,” Fabrizio said. “Or they’re booted from the system because their landlord wouldn’t sign the form. It’s a big violation of human rights.”

When dispensaries announced they had to close their doors in August, many patients bought one ounce of marijuana, the maximum amount, to try and make it last until dispensaries opened again. If their landlord refused to sign the form, patients risked being in possession of a Schedule I drug, and in violation of Montana law regardless of their cardholder status.  

Fabrizio said the complication between renting cardholders and their landlords is forcing the majority of his patients to start from scratch.

Jon Ebelt, Public Information Officer for the Montana Dept. of Public Health and Human Services, said his office has received 1,300 applications so far, which makes up both new applications and forms requesting a change of provider. The agency has processed 70 percent of applications in the order they were received.

“We feel the workload to this point is very manageable, but we will continue to monitor the situation and will respond accordingly,” he said.

Ebelt said change of provider forms take two to three days to process and new applications for cardholders or providers take three to four days.

While waiting for patients to get reauthorized, Fabrizio said he’s trying to interpret gray areas of the law.

He is allowed to provide a patient with one ounce of marijuana, but it’s unclear how to quantify an ounce when it’s in an edible or concentrate form instead of plant form. Providers are also prohibited from advertising, and Fabrizio is worried having a Facebook page to let patients know his hours and location could be considered illegal. The Department of Health and Human Services has been unable to answer questions about that so far, which makes required annual state inspections unnerving, he said.

“There are so many holes in this law,” Fabrizio said. “You can’t inspect us without having very open expectations.”

Helena Buds has four strains on the shelf from the 12 plants he’s been allowed to grow. Montana law allows four plants per patient, and 12 seedlings per patient. The seedlings have to be cut down once they reach a foot high. Fabrizio said he started letting his seedlings grow to the allowed height in anticipation that I-182 would pass. With 250 patients before he shut down in August, it will take several months before Helena Buds has enough strains, edibles and concentrates.

In addition to serving more patients, Fabrizio is able to grow more strains of marijuana, which will ultimately improve patient care. He said it takes trial and error to find the right combination of strains and amount, just like any other drug.

“I have a patient that needs eight to 10 strains,” he said. “It takes a while to figure out which strain works best.”

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While Fabrizio has been busy getting Helena Buds back on its feet, he’s also planning for the possibility of a sales tax.

Gov. Steve Bullock included a 6 percent sales tax on medical marijuana in his budget proposal, which has been criticized by caregivers and several Montana lawmakers.

State Rep. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, said on Facebook that the tax is “a punitive sales tax on suffering Montanans to fund increased government spending.”

The marijuana tax would be comparable to taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Fabrizio said Montana law now gives marijuana legitimacy as a medicine, which means it shouldn’t be taxed like it is in states where recreational marijuana is legal.

“The law legitimizes me, not a 6 percent tax,” he said.

If it does pass, Fabrizio said he won’t pass on that expense to patients and will instead pay the sales tax himself.

While Montana law makes dispensaries valid, Fabrizio said he hopes a well regulated program will encourage sick people to seek medical marijuana earlier in their course of treatment.

“It’s important for me to be here for these people,” he said. “They’ve tried everything else. You’re excited to work with them but then you get their death notice in the mail.”

Helena Buds is located at 2625 Canyon Ferry Road and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekends.

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