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Montana’s Monumental Medical Marijuana Mess

Voters passed a measure to reform the state’s medical marijuana program, but that’s the start of another headache.

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Last Tuesday, as electorates in seven states decided to allow medical or recreational marijuana the first time, Montana voters had to pass a bill just to get their medical cannabis program running again. I-182, an initiative to repeal Montana’s standing MMJ law and expand access to medical cannabis, passed with nearly 58 percent of the vote and a wide 15-point lead. Local journalists in recent months have chronicled how the previous MMJ law, passed in 2011 but only recently put into force by a favorable court ruling after years of delays after lawsuits from the cannabis industry, left thousands of doctor-recommended medical marijuana patients without any provider from which to legally purchase their prescribed medicine—and I-182 was designed and advocated as a way to fix that. Yet despite having decisively convinced voters, an error in the drafting of the new ballot measure itself may keep its mandated solutions from being implemented for months, with emboldened state Republicans hinting that the state’s program may be vulnerable to legislative revision once again. But just how did Montana get to this point?

While medical marijuana has technically been legal in Montana since way back in 2004 when a measure earned 62 percent voter approval, the program became the subject of controversy and governmental scrutiny after 2009, when popular demand for medical access exploded after the Obama administration announced it wouldn’t interfere with MMJ users compliant with state law. As the number of registered patients grew by tens of thousands only within a few years, political scrutiny of the program’s legitimacy followed (never mind that the total population of registered users only amounted to 3 percent of Montana’s million-person population; still lower than the 7 percent national average rate of monthly cannabis use suggested by federal surveys). But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration decided it was time to intervene, and conducted raids on dispensaries across the state in March 2011, culminating in the successful indictment of several dispensary operators on drug trafficking charges (though most ultimately only served house arrest or probation). The negative attention which followed led the state legislature to take drastic action, to the detriment of legitimate medical users.
After the Republican-controlled legislature passed a complete repeal of the medical marijuana program only to be vetoed by then Democratic governor Brian Schweitzer, Democratic legislators proposed their own reforms to the program under SB 423. However, to get passed it ended up attached with a number of restrictive provisions, including preventing any medical cannabis provider from serving more than three registered patients (seriously), making the operation of financially sustainable dispensaries impossible, and effectively resulting in a bill that Montana NORML calls “a repeal in disguise”, and which its own primary sponsor, Democrat Cliff Larsen, disavowed, stating “The bill that actually passed wasn’t the one I wanted,” and that he was afraid truly sick people would be disenfranchised by its conditions.
After the marijuana industry filed suit in court contesting the terms of SB 423, its implementation was held up by judicial review all the way until September of this year, when a court ruling finally gave permission for it to be put into effect. Despite I-182 already qualifying for the ballot, and public petitions to delay SB 432’s implementation until after voters had their say, the state’s Republican Attorney General Tim Fox decided to apply and enforce its provisions immediately. Most dispensaries were forced to close—unable to lawfully service enough customers to make ends meet—and reportedly over ten thousand patients currently registered with the Montana Medical Marijuana Program were left with no legal supplier for their still technically authorized medicine. Patients and dispensaries alike spent the interim anxiously anticipating the vote in November and wondering if they would be allowed to resume their medical practices, but despite a favorable outcome, it appears there’s yet another bump in the road for this community.
Back in August before SB 423’s belated introduction, a “clerical error” was discovered in the text of I-182 after its qualification for the November ballot: several of its most significant terms, including the three-patients-per-provider rule, wouldn’t go into effect until June 30, 2017. This means another eight-month delay for those waiting to treat ailments like multiple sclerosis, arthritis, and PTSD (a qualifying condition as of I-182’s passage); as well as for dispensaries stuck in limbo. Complicating this affair further, the only body with the power to intervene and eliminate the waiting period is the state legislature, once again in the control of historically meddlesome Republicans. There’s concern that asking for their assistance may be letting the wolf back into the hen house;  potentially enabling them to insert other terms abridging the program in ways unintended by supportive voters. Now those encumbered by clumsy legislation have another wait ahead – the January 2nd commencement of the next legislative session, to see exactly what their representatives have in store for the newest iteration of legal medical marijuana in Montana.

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