huckleberry strain medical marijuana buds

A jar of huckleberry strain medical marijuana buds.

Thom Bridge, thom.bridge@helenair.com

The number of patients registered to Montana's medical marijuana program has nearly doubled since January.

There were 17,819 people enrolled in the program as of July, according to data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

That's up from 9,666 in January and as few as 7,558 in November 2016, when voters approved a ballot initiative that served as the basis for the current program.

The number of patients fell by more than 6,000 in 2016, from its high in March of that year to November. The most precipitous decline came in the fall, when a more restrictive law forced medical marijuana providers to drop all but three patients.

The program has seen ups and downs. More than 30,000 were registered in the previous program in June 2011, just as state legislators passed a restrictive bill intended to curb abuses of the system.

Now the program appears to be on another upswing with an average of about 1,300 new cardholders signed up each month so far this year. The program is set up to pay for itself through various fees and a new tax on sales by providers.

Montana legislators passed a regulatory bill this spring, establishing rules that will take effect by next April.

Last month, the state health department issued temporary rules for some parts of the program, such as possession limits, which take effect until full implementation of the new law. Those rules also include a temporary, voluntary license for testing laboratories and chemical manufacturers, which commonly produce marijuana extracts.

Licensing for marijuana quality testing will become permanent in 2018. Providers with more than 10 patients will also be required to submit to testing.

The department will host a public meeting for those rules on Aug. 24 in Helena. That will take place at 1:30 p.m. at 111 North Sanders.

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