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HELENA — Low-income and ailing Montanans who are qualified to use medical marijuana are now eligible for financial help with the one-time $200 fee the state is charging patients to get on the medical marijuana registry.

The Marijuana Policy Project of Washington, D.C., the main driver behind Montana's new medical marijuana law, has donated $2,000 to a financial assistance fund for low-income Montanans.

The project is also seeking private donations to buttress the fund. The new law was passed by voters on Nov. 2 and took effect Jan. 1.

"Our goal is to make sure that no Montana patient has to risk arrest and jail because they can't afford to register,'' said Neal Levine, director of state policies for the Medical Marijuana Project. "Hopefully, Montanans will be as generous with their donations as they were with their votes, keeping the program fully funded.''

Robin Prosser of Missoula, a strong supporter of the new law, was dismayed when she learned in December that the state would charge medical marijuana users a $200 registration fee.

"This is pretty high cost just to get a card,'' Prosser said. "A driver's license doesn't cost that much. It's like charging people for handicapped stickers for their car.''

Prosser is the first Montanan to receive the aid offered by the Washington, D.C., group.

"I am grateful to MPP for their help, and I hope no other sick person has to worry about whether they can afford a yearly cost like this,'' Prosser said in a written statement Tuesday.

The new law, passed by a 63 to 37 percent margins on Nov. 2, calls for the creation of a state medical marijuana registry. Patients with certain medical conditions who receive a written recommendation for marijuana from their doctor are registered on the confidential list and issued a card that permits them to have as many as six marijuana plants and an ounce of marijuana.

Roy Kemp, head of the state's licensure bureau, said the new law didn't come with any funding. He said the $200 fee is necessary to keep the new database and the registration service financially self-sufficient.

"We had to come up with a fee that would enable us to administer the program as the voters intended,'' Kemp said in a written statement. "We tried to keep the fee as low as possible without putting the program in jeopardy. Given the cost of most medical treatments, we think $200 is not unreasonable.''

Prosser, who uses marijuana to ease chronic bone pain, muscle spasms, nausea and headaches, was charged with drug possession and drug paraphernalia possession last May.

Patients will be eligible for assistance if they appear to qualify for a medical marijuana ID card and their income is below 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $9,300 for a single person. Full application instructions are available at www.montanacares.org/assistance. Contributions to the fund can be made online at www.mpp.org/patients

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