HELENA — For years, Montana medical marijuana patients who get their medication from a dispensary have had to choose a single provider to go to. Provider J.J. Thomas says he’s never believed that was the best option.
“No one wants to eat at McDonald’s every day, over and over again, when a thousand different places make hamburgers,” he said. “It’s the same with medication or anything else: people want variety, they want to shop at different places, they want accessibility.”
Thomas owns “The Higher Standard” dispensaries, with locations in Helena, Missoula, Butte and Dillon. He said he was pleased last month to hear that the state was “untethering” cardholders – allowing them to buy from any licensed provider in the state.
“I think if the whole program would have started untethered in the first place, it would have been a whole different ball of wax among the industry in general over all these years,” said Thomas.
Last year, the Montana Legislature approved Senate Bill 265, a medical marijuana reform bill that called for untethering patients by the end of June 2020. In April, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services officially informed patients and providers that it would implement the change on Tuesday, June 2.
Erica Johnston, operations services branch manager for DPHHS, said it has taken time for the agency to make the necessary rule changes and system upgrades.
SB 265 said registered cardholders could purchase up to one ounce of usable marijuana per day, and a maximum of five ounces per month. It also required that the state’s “seed-to-sale” marijuana tracking system could alert a provider when a cardholder was buying more than they were allowed.
“The biggest system challenge is getting that tracking in place that allows a provider to know how much a cardholder has purchased previous to walking in their door, without also giving that provider details of all the purchases that were made at other providers,” Johnston said. “So we want to help protect that privacy and still allow the providers the ability to check on the limits purchased.”
Johnston said, because of the COVID-19 emergency, the state has temporarily suspended the daily purchase limit, so only the monthly limit will be enforced on June 2. That will help limit the number of times patients, who may have additional risk factors due to their condition, will have to go into the public.
Untethering will not require major changes for patients. Johnston said existing marijuana cards will remain valid until their regular renewal date.
Johnston said the change should remove some obstacles that may keep patients from getting their medication.
“Obviously, these patients have developed relationships with their providers, and where those relationships are good, I don’t foresee those changing,” she said. “But it does allow people who are traveling, if they have to have an extended period of time where they’re spending time with family in another part of the state, they have the ability to access medicine if they need it.”
Johnston also said untethering will ensure patients aren’t left with no options if a provider closes operations or if DPHHS takes regulatory action against a provider.
Thomas said he has a few concerns related to the new system – primarily that some providers may not be able to increase their production fast enough if they see increased demand. Overall, though, he sees untethering as a change for the better.
“I truly believe that if you’ve been doing a great job all these years, and you’ve been taking care of people, there’s no reason people aren’t going to continue to shop you,” he said. “I feel like everyone’s going to be just fine, and it’s the best thing that could happen to the industry in a very long time.”
You can find more information about the Montana Marijuana Program and about untethering on the DPHHS website.