Helena, Mont. — As Bob Marley music wailed in the next room, the makeshift clinic hummed along like an assembly line: Patients went in to see a doctor, paid $150 and walked out with a recommendation that they be allowed to buy and smoke medical marijuana.
So it went, all day, at a hotel just blocks from the state Capitol that was the latest stop of the so-called cannabis caravan, a band of doctors and medical marijuana advocates roaming Montana that has helped thousands of patients apply for medical marijuana cards from the state.
“You’re helping end suffering on this planet for human beings,” clinic organizer Jason Christ said as he sat outside the hotel in an RV filled with pot smoke.
To the dismay of state medical authorities and lawmakers, the caravans have helped the number of pot cardholders in Montana swell over the past year from about 3,000 to 15,000.
Christ’s group, Montana Caregivers Network, will take the caravan out of Montana later this month for the first time, with clinics scheduled in three Michigan cities: Detroit, Kalamazoo and Lansing. He said pot advocates from several other states — including New Mexico, New Jersey and Hawaii — have contacted him to inquire about setting up similar businesses.
The state medical board is trying to curtail the mass screenings and recently fined a physician who participated in a similar clinic in the first disciplinary action taken against a doctor in a Montana medical marijuana case. The board found that the doctor had seen about 150 people in 14 1/2 hours, or roughly a patient every six minutes, nowhere near enough to provide appropriate care in the eyes of medical observers.
The board also recently reminded physicians that they must perform thorough examinations, take medical histories, discuss alternative treatments and monitor patients’ response to the cannabis — standards that typically apply when prescribing other medication.
“Be on the alert. You are still held to these same standards,” said Jean Branscum, the board’s executive director.
The roving cannabis caravans appear to be unique to Montana, although mobile marijuana operations have arisen elsewhere. A rolling marijuana dispensary in California sold chocolate-covered cookies, brownies, pretzels and other marijuana-laced items out of an RV before authorities moved to shut it down.
Mike Meno, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, the chief lobbying arm of the legalization movement, said the 14 states that allow medical marijuana have varying regulations that could make it difficult for the caravans to operate outside Montana.
“The more I hear about these things, it sounds like they’re not following the intent of the law,” Meno said. “People say they might be making a mockery of the law, and I hope that’s not the case.”
Medical marijuana has been legal in Montana for more than five years, allowing people with debilitating conditions to buy pot with a doctor’s permission.
After the Obama administration announced last year that it would not prosecute medical marijuana users, the pace of registrations quickened, and people began flocking to the caravans.
At a recent stop in Helena, the clinic processed between 200 and 300 people seeking doctor recommendations. The organization then helps the patient send the application and doctor’s recommendation to the state health department. After the patient receives a card, he can begin using marijuana.