Mark Gibbons grows marijuana.

Leaning into a bright green female plant recently, a smile broke across his face as he smelled its distinct aroma.

"That's B.C. bud," he said, referring to the popular strain of potent cannabis originally grown in British Columbia.

Gibbons, 44, is part of the growing number of people in the Butte area participating either as a grower or patient in Montana's medical marijuana program.

With a background in landscaping and previously working as an emergency medical technician, Gibbons began operating as a caregiver — a person who grows and supplies marijuana — after being approached by a terminally ill cancer patient, who has since died.

Gibbons started with a handful of patients this summer.

Now he's the caregiver for 12 and another 30 patients are awaiting their registration cards.

Seventy more people are working through the process of obtaining their cards, a majority from the Butte area, Gibbons said.

"So many more people are doing it and getting licensed," Gibbons said.

New challenges for authorities The increased use of marijuana has presented new challenges for the county attorney's office, but local police say they have had no major issues with people abusing the law.

"Most of them are obeying the law just fine and that's great," police Capt. George Skuletich said.

In an effort to further understand and ensure compliance, some Butte police are attending an upcoming training in Billings on the state's medical marijuana laws, he said.

"It's confusing," Skuletich said. "I don't have a problem with it, just as long as everyone is working on the same page." County Attorney Eileen Joyce agreed.

"I think the challenge for prosecutors is to determine whether you have sufficient evidence that someone is abusing the medical marijuana law because it's fairly new," she said.

Joyce believes the challenge for her office, and others in the state, will be determining compliance.

Specifically, the Medical Marijuana Act includes an "affirmative defense" provision, which Joyce interprets as a way for those without a registry card to argue they still need the drug for a medical condition.

That argument would need to be verified by a doctor, Joyce said.

"It's challenging to determine when you believe you have sufficient evidence that someone is abusing the provisions, but that's really what we need to figure out when we make a charge," Joyce said.

A Butte man arrested last month may be the first local resident to use the affirmative defense.

Mitchell Booth, 52, was charged in Butte district court with felony criminal production or manufacture of dangerous drugs and criminal possession of dangerous drugs after police raided his home at 1501 N. Excelsior.

Police seized more than six suspected marijuana plants being grown in the home, according to charging documents.

During his initial appearance, Booth appeared before the justice in a wheelchair and said, "This is a medical marijuana case." The justice allowed Booth to be released on recognizance because he suffers from medical complications.

Joyce said she could not comment because the case is still pending.

Gibbons, meanwhile, said he went to police, the county attorney's office and obtained a city business and state caregiver's license hoping to avoid the legal hassle.

"I've definitely jumped through some hoops," he said. "I did it because I wanted to make double sure I was legal. They said ‘thanks for approaching us.'" Enterprise interest grows Voters overwhelmingly approved the Medical Marijuana Act in 2004, but it wasn't until this summer that some local officials began discussing the issue.

Three people — including Gibbons — have sought permits to grow medical marijuana in the Mining City in recent months.

"It did take us by surprise," said Steve Hess, assistant Butte-Silver Bow planning director. "It's been on the books at the state level and no one had approached us." The planning office issued two business licenses in commercial or industrial areas, but denied a third for a home occupation permit to grow in a residential area.

"We just said to that person ‘you're licensed through the state and that's good enough for us," Hess said.

The idea of caregivers seeking licenses from the local planning office raises concerns for state Rep. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, an early supporter of the initiative.

The law does not require a business license, he said. It states that the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services shall establish and maintain the program.

It allows a qualifying patient and that patient's caregiver to possess no more than six marijuana plants and one ounce of usable marijuana each.

Erickson believes patients and caregivers should be allowed to have more than one ounce and six plants on hand, but says the program has been successful so far.

"There are quite a few more people being helped than we would have guessed six years ago," he said. "It's amazing that that many people are being helped and getting relief." Erickson acknowledged the possibility for the system to be abused, but said he hasn't seen any signs that's happening.

The possibility for abuse, he believes, would exist with growers having more plants than allowed under the law.

Legislation introduced during the last session called for inspections on growers, who would in exchange have permission to grow more plants.

The bill passed the Senate but died on a tie vote in a House committee.

Doctors learning about the law While some lawmakers are already seeking to amend the act, some Butte doctors like Kirwan Webb of Express Care still aren't familiar with the current law.

Dr. Webb said he supports medical marijuana as a therapy for chronic pain and other conditions, but that he's unsure whether he would sign a patient's application for a registry card.

"I think right now I haven't been educated on the process enough to say I know exactly what I need to do here," he said. "I think I would need to educate myself more on what the process entails." Even with the roughly 18,000 patients who visit Express Care each year, Dr. Webb said none has asked to have an application for medical marijuana signed.

And Gibbons, the local grower, said he's only aware of one customer who had an application signed locally.

The others, he said, travel to doctors in other areas of the state.

Some physicians sponsor clinics where people seeking their registry card can quickly meet with a doctor and have their application signed, which Gibbons doesn't support.

"A doctor wouldn't give you morphine after three minutes of a visit but they are giving medical marijuana after a three-minute visit," he said.

Roy Kemp, who runs the state's registry program, said about 300 physicians throughout the state have recommended the use of medical marijuana for patients.

There are 4,189 valid registrants in Montana — up from 358 in July of 2007 — and 1,316 registered caregivers, he said.

Reporter Justin Post may be reached at justin.post@lee.net.

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