On Wednesday, a Montana judge legally nullified a technical error in a voter-approved statewide ballot initiative to expand its medical marijuana program, which would have kept dispensaries shuttered until July 2017. Montana’s I-182, which passed with 58 percent voter approval this past Election Day, was intended by supporters to immediately reopen the state’s medical marijuana market after a state law beset by years of court challenges, limiting cannabis providers to serving merely three patients a piece (and making their businesses financially unsustainable) finally went into effect on August 31; displacing nearly 12,000 legally qualified medical marijuana users overnight from having any outlet to lawfully purchase it ever since. However before the measure even passed, its authors—the Montana Cannabis Industry Association—admitted they made a crucial oversight during eleventh-hour edits to the final draft and erroneously changed the implementation date for certain provisions, including abolishing the patient-per-provider limit, to June 30, 2017. Once the Secretary of State’s Office certified it for public consideration, it was too late to legally revise it again. While proponents of the referendum were certainly pleased by its success with the electorate in November, they instantly had another problem on their hands—how to avoid keeping Montana’s medical marijuana sector on ice for another eight months despite their earlier mistake.
Luckily for them, as well as for the plethora of patients in Big Sky Country without anywhere to officially buy their medication, the district judge in Helena saw things their way. Judge James Reynolds on Wednesday decided in favor of a lawsuit filed by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, filed on November 22, to ignore the initiative’s administrative blunder and enact its terms immediately. “The folks that are maybe the most in need are the least able to provide, grow their own,” Reynolds remarked; “I think speed is more important than niceties.” He added that the effective date was “clearly an error, that the advocacy group had meant for the measure to take effect immediately, and that the group had publicly campaigned that it would upon passage.” He appeared to be in total concurrence with James Goetz, the association’s attorney, who said last month that, “You and I and everybody else knows that when the public voted on I-182, they didn’t get into the minutia of the effective date. Let’s get on with it and help these poor people who want their medicine and can’t get it.” The favorable adjudication defied earlier expectations from some who expected it would take months for a court to consider the suit, or that the state legislature, historically unsympathetic towards the interests of medical marijuana users, might refuse to act upon reconvening in January.
The state health department, which didn’t oppose the association’s lawsuit, received over 200 requests from both cannabis patients and providers for official registration or renewal right after the judge’s decision Wednesday. Some are concerned that the “excess of paperwork submitted could delay patients’ access”, although the department’s attorney, Nicholas Domitrovich, said,“We believe we’ll be able to keep up with the workload as we have in the past.” Yet that may not be the only issue with the potential to hinder the industry from commencing its reboot, as reopening dispensaries isn’t as simple as turning the lights back on, despite receiving legal permission to do so. While reportedly many dispensaries began working with patients to process state-required paperwork after the judge’s ruling, they’ve so far offered no guarantees regarding how soon they’ll be able to supply customers with cannabis again. Bob Ream, a former state legislator who supported I-182 and uses medical marijuana to treat effects of cancer and chemotherapy, said that the previously defunct dispensaries may have difficulty keeping pace with pent-up demand; “I don’t know how they get up to speed on growing. I would guess there is going to be some delays in availability until they get cranked up again.” However Montana cannabis lobbyist Kate Cholewa is more optimistic about the sector’s ability to return and flourish despite the forced hiatus: “The people who work providing marijuana in Montana, were, let’s face it, they were jerked around quite a bit. They are somewhat used to it and very good at coming back.”