HELENA, Mont. — A person doesn't have to live in Montana to receive a medical marijuana card from the state, health officials said Friday.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services discovered what it calls a loophole in state law after reviewing plans to require medical marijuana applicants to have a Montana driver's license or state-issued identification, said department spokesman Chuck Council.
The new driver's license policy was to begin on Monday, but the legal review has halted those plans.
"The law is mute on the subject of legal residency and there is no recourse for the Department of Public Health and Human Services but to keep the situation as it stands," Council said. "On Monday, we will be moving forward, status quo, on the processing of out-of-state applications."
The state health department maintains the medical marijuana patient registry, which stood at about 23,500 patients at the end of July. That's an increase of nearly 4,000 people in just a month, a continuation of the medical pot boom that in the first six months of 2010 has seen more than 12,300 registered users added to the state registry.
Health officials decided to tighten the residency requirements after discovering several people whose permanent residences were outside Montana, such as college students and snowbirds, had applied for medical marijuana cards. It is unclear just how many such applications were received.
But unless the Legislature fixes the state law, health officials have no choice but to accept out-of-state applications, Council said.
State lawmakers are back in session in January, and an interim legislative committee is drafting changes meant to strengthen the law. The current law was passed by voter initiative in 2004, but the registration boom over the past year has exposed gray areas that police and municipal officials say have made oversight and enforcement difficult.
The founder of the Montana Caregivers Network, an advocacy group that has helped sign up thousands of medical marijuana patients, said Friday that the health department's announcement is good news for patients.
"This was a clear violation," Jason Christ said of the plan to require driver's licenses. "I feel like they probably had a lot of calls by people about that."
He has said that any qualifying patient should be able to get a medical marijuana card from Montana, and that he is skeptical the Legislature will act to restrict that access to Montana residents.
"A lot of people have anticipated that the Legislature's going to do a lot of things. They never have," Christ said. "Intentions are great, but you can't take intentions to the bank."