By GWEN FLORIO – Missoulian
Montana’s tough new medical marijuana law was supposed to end the phenomenon of assembly-line doctor appointments or online recommendations for therapeutic cannabis.
While some medical marijuana businesses have shut down during the legal wrangling over the new law, others are staging one-day clinics where people can get a doctor’s recommendation for marijuana.
And Jason Christ, the Missoula medical marijuana entrepreneur who staged the roaming “cannabis caravans” that signed up hundreds of patients at a time, announced last week that he’s reviving his online “teleclinics.”
“We are seeing patients for their mmj cards by the hundreds,” brags the website for CarePlus+, the new name for Christ’s business that gained notoriety as the Montana Caregivers Network and, later, CannabisCare.
Christ’s email announcing the service touted “visits on your computer with a Montana-licensed physician,” as well as in-person visits “with our traveling doctors.”
That’s exactly what the new state law aimed to stop. The law was passed by the 2011 Legislature without Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s signature. Portions of it were struck down by District Court Judge James Reynolds of Helena a day before it went into effect.
“I don’t think there’s an argument that the former teleclinic/traveling model is permitted,” said Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who sponsored the law restricting the 2004 voter initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana. “The intention to prohibit the traveling clinics was quite clear.”
The new law went into effect July 1. The CarePlus+ website lists clinics in Missoula on July 21 and July 23, one in an unspecified area in the Flathead on July 30 and one in Helena on July 31, as well as a Missoula teleclinic July 17.
Another business, The Healing Center, offers clinics in Bozeman July 25-26 and in Butte on July 27.
“Walk-ins welcome,” says the website, which lists a series of one-day clinics in Montana, Arizona and Alaska. “All patients will qualify (as per state law).”
Mike Smith, executive director of The Healing Center, said about 40 to 50 people are seen at each of the clinics in a business model he plans to take nationwide. He bristled at any comparison to Christ’s caravans.
“We do not do it like Jason Christ,” he said. “We see every patient, one at a time, in a doctor’s office.”
The new law mandated an automatic review — at the physician’s cost — by the state Board of Medical Examiners of any doctor recommending medical marijuana for more than 25 patients within a year. State health statistics show a single, unnamed physician signed recommendations for more than one in five of Montana’s 30,000 registered medical marijuana users. But that requirement was among the provisions blocked by Reynolds.
Still, the Legislature wanted all doctor’s recommendations for medical marijuana to come from “a bona fide legitimate patient relationship,” Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy said. “The intent therefore was to make it unlawful to recommend medical marijuana by the use of traveling or temporary medical clinics.”
Tom Charlton said he’s “trying to toe the line” when it comes to the new law.
“We’re continuing business as before, even though it’s not like before,” said Charlton, who was a caregiver for medical marijuana patients as part of his M4U business in the North Reserve Business Park in Missoula.
Along with another nearby medical marijuana business, M4U staged a three-day clinic over the weekend so that Charlton’s old patients could designate him as their medical marijuana provider. Another two-day clinic is set for next month. All of M4U’s clinics take place in Missoula, he said.
Under the old law, Charlton was a caregiver, permitted to grow six marijuana plants for each of an unlimited number of patients. The new law requires him to re-register as a provider. It limited providers to three patients, but that portion was temporarily blocked by Reynolds.
The law also mandates that patients using medical marijuana for chronic pain — who make up two-thirds of those with medical marijuana cards — bring X-rays or MRI scans from their primary physician to support their claims, and to obtain a recommendation from a second doctor.
Charlton said the rule at M4U’s clinic is simple: no records, no recommendation.
The Healing Center’s website notes that “since our doctors are consulting about a patient’s eligibility to acquire their medical cannabis ID card we require that all of our patients have at least one other current physician.”
And Christ’s email said CarePlus+ could refer patients to “outside services” for lab work, X-rays and MRIs.
Christ told the Missoulian last October that nearly all Montana Caregiver Network recommendations were made via online Skype video appointments. At the time, he boasted that MCN had signed up 80 percent of the state’s then-23,000 medical marijuana cardholders.
The state Board of Medical Examiners ruled in November that online visits could only be used for medical marijuana card renewals. Christ’s note about the CarePlus+ services said the teleclinic visits included “follow-up recommendations,” but didn’t specify that online visits were limited to renewals.
Debate over the new state law, along with a series of federal raids on several medical marijuana businesses around the state this spring, cast a pall over Montana’s booming medical marijuana industry. Many in the business openly criticized Christ for provoking the law that they say is destroying their livelihoods.
Christ had assumed a considerably lower profile in the last year after a series of lawsuits and counter-suits involving former employees and business partners, as well as a pending felony intimidation charge that stems from an alleged bomb threat against a Missoula Verizon store.
So his email last week appeared to signal what some see as an unwelcome return to prominence.
“The damn teleclinics,” Smith called them. “He’s already pissing people off.”
Dr. John Stowers, a plaintiff in the suit filed against the new law, dashed off a furious email in response after Christ announced CarePlus+.
“So here we go again! You stupid arrogant (expletive),” Stowers wrote. “Haven’t you figured out that you created the majority of the problems in the first place.”
Essmann chose his words more diplomatically.
“Mr. Christ’s problem ultimately is going to be with federal law enforcement,” he said. “… Mr. Christ is definitely facilitating the distribution of a controlled substance, as are the physicians he’s affiliated with. At some point, some aggressive young prosecutor is going to issue a subpoena to obtain that doctor’s name and have a visit with Mr. Christ.”