Montana's medical marijuana registry isn't keeping up with a flurry of applications, leaving sick patients without medicine or in danger of legal fallout.
"That makes them vulnerable to arrest and prosecution, unfairly," says Tom Daubert from Patients and Families United, a statewide group supporting people who use the drug to treat illness.
Voters legalized medical marijuana with Initiative 148 in 2004. To use marijuana within the confines of the law, patients must register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), which is legally required to process applications within 20 working days of the submission. But amid growing demand for the program, the agency is lagging behind.
"We're six weeks out instead of four," says Roy Kemp, who as deputy administrator for DPHHS' quality assurance division oversees the marijuana registry.
Registered marijuana users grew from 358 in 2007 to 3,246 this month. Until recently, the agency had only one half-time staffer and a temporary employee to manage the workload.
Kemp says the problem isn't lack of funding. The registry is flush as coffers fill with $50 patient and caregiver application fees. Lag time mounted because DPHHS, which needs legislative approval to hire additional registry staff, didn't have the okay to do so until July 1.
After advertising the position in early July, the new employee started a few weeks ago.
"We are putting in overtime hours to catch up," Kemp says.
Daubert still worries that DPHHS is ill equipped to handle the growing load. With the registry unable to create any new staff positions until well after the Legislature convenes in January 2011, he thinks more patients could linger in legal limbo.
"I'm a little nervous that this problem will reoccur before the next legislative session," he says.
If the backlog at DPHHS persists, Patients and Families United might bring a lawsuit to force action.
"We would ask the Legislature to untie their hands," says Daubert, "and not micromanage the number of staff that they have."