BOZEMAN, Mont. When Tyler Smith was diagnosed with testicular cancer, medical marijuana didnt feel like a valid option.
He took opioids to manage the pain of nine months of chemotherapy. To balance the side effects, he took anti-nausea medication. When he stopped wanting food, he couldnt find anything that helped.
I knew cannabis might help, but at that point there were no safeguards around the medicine, Smith said. Patient accessibility and safety in this medicine is something we as a state need to learn more about.
Smith has been cancer-free for two years. As a chemist, he wants to see safety increase around marijuana for those who still need the drug. He recently opened White Buffalo Laboratories as one of Montanas first certified labs to examine cannabis.
Smith said without any national standards around the drug, we dont really know the full scope of regulations the state will decide well have to operate by.
Montanas 13-year-old medical marijuana program has seesawed between few regulations and limited access. Upcoming program rules are supposed to change that, but many of the details are still murky.
Roughly six months from now, the state will unroll new licensing requirements for providers and, for the first time, rules around testing the quality, potency and safety of cannabis sold as medicine. The idea is similar to having health grades for restaurants.
Amid this uncertainty, the number of patients signing up for the states cannabis program is growing.
As of August, nearly 19,000 people qualified for marijuana prescriptions 1,124 more than the month before. The largest set of those patients lives in Gallatin County with 3,836 cardholders.
Many providers are starting to test their cannabis before the new program requirements kick in April 30. They hope if lab results reveal an issue, they can fix it without delaying patient prescriptions.
But only two out of the states four young labs are open.
Were getting providers lined up but waiting for the department to come out with their rule making, Smith said. My concern is whether we have time to get into compliance to avoid a bottleneck in April.
Montanas upcoming regulations were set in motion last fall by a voter-passed Initiative 182. Among other things, the measure removed a rule lawmakers created that limited providers to three patients.
Before restricting providers size, in 2011 lawmakers pointed to the fact that 30,000 Montanans were cannabis cardholders as proof the program was too big. After years of litigation, the rules went into effect last year. Nearly 90 percent of the states marijuana patients lost their providers and 55 dispensaries stopped operating.
When I-182 expanded access once again, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 333 as an attempt to set up side rails to Montanas marijuana program.
Bobby Devine, owner of Spark1 in Bozeman, said he doesnt think all dispensaries will make the cut when the state unrolls new licensing guidelines.
There is an industry standard that exists throughout this country, and its coming to Montana, Devine said. Its a win-win for patients.
Owner of New Roots Inc., Doug Ireland said hes relieved the voter initiative re-established his ability to test what hes selling to roughly 50 patients.
But he still doesnt know how often hell have to send cannabis in for testing or how much it will cost.
I want to make sure were serving whats right for patients, Ireland said. But were not big enough to be able to pay thousands for every batch we harvest.
Twice a month, Ron Brost travels the nearly 340 miles from his lab in the Flathead Valley to pick up Irelands samples in Bozeman. Brost opened Stillwater Laboratory in April, Montanas first registered cannabis analysis business.
With only two labs right now, we cant leave Bozeman high and dry without anybody to test, Brost said. Or Billings or Missoula.
Brost sized his lab to serve the Flathead Valley, or about 10 percent of Montanans enrolled in the medical marijuana program.
Im no longer concerned if there will be enough work, he said. Id say 10 hours is an easy workday and it only goes up from there. Some nights, we just work through.
Brost said the routine isnt sustainable but it should balance out. He thinks analysis companies outside of Montana are waiting to show up until dispensaries are required to send their product to labs.
Andre Umansky said hes worried Montana could get too many testing facilities.
His lab, Fidelity Diagnostics Laboratory LLC, has tested roughly 1,000 samples since opening two months ago. Umansky went from being the main man in the lab to training new employees to keep up. But he said thats expected with a new industry.
Umansky thinks about three labs is the right amount to serve Montanans, though he added it depends on how many patients sign up.
If we start getting out-of-state labs in Montana, like from Washington, theyve had eight years to get ready and weve had zero, he said.
Jon Ebelt with Montanas health department said its too soon to say whether current labs can fill Montanas needs. He said he wont know that answer until the states rule-making process wraps up and he knows each labs testing capacity.
Ebelt said the states new marijuana program requirements should be out for public comment by the end of the year before theyre finalized in April. He said the state has worked with labs and providers around the country to draft the program.
As officials have researched what other states have done, Ebelt said not one has ...