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Cannabis caravans fuel medical pot boom in Montana

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 permission 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 to sign up thousands of patients.

''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 141/2 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.