Montana health officials are backing advocates who are seeking a longer delay on medical marijuana restrictions that would force about 350 of the state’s 476 providers to discontinue their services. (AAron Ontiveroz, Denver Post file)

Battle brewing on when to implement severe Montana pot restrictions

State health officials say approximately 10,000 of the 13,594 registered patients would be cut off from their supply under the three-patient limit for medical marijuana providers

HELENA, Mont. — Severe medical marijuana restrictions that would force the closure of large dispensaries should go into effect no more than 49 days after the Montana Supreme Court upheld a disputed 2011 state law, an attorney for the Department of Justice said Tuesday.

State health officials are backing medical marijuana advocates who are seeking a longer delay, saying it would take months for the agency to carry out the regulatory changes in the court’s ruling.

Last month, the court upheld provisions of the 2011 law that limits marijuana providers to selling the drug to no more than three patients each. Medical marijuana advocates who sued to block the law asked the Supreme Court last week to reconsider the three-patient limit and delay implementation of the restrictions until after the 2017 legislative session, which is more than a year from now.

The state Department of Justice opposes the request to reconsider the limit and a lengthy transition period, Assistant Attorney General Stuart Segrest wrote in response to the advocates’ request. Only 49 days passed from when the state Legislature passed the bill in May 2011 and it was to go into effect that July, officials said.

“If the court is inclined to delay things at all, it should follow the same 49-day period that was in the law,” attorney general spokesman John Barnes said. He later clarified that the department was making a suggestion based on its interpretation of the law, not telling the court what it should do.

The advocates, led by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, argued that a longer transition period would prevent the disruption of patient care and help state officials prepare for enforcing the ruling. It also would give them time to prepare a ballot initiative reversing the restrictions and lobby legislators to change the law in 2017 if the initiative fails.

Segrest wrote in response that the effective date should be the same period as was in the original bill. He requested that the 49-day period begin with the court’s ruling on Feb. 25, which would make the effective date April 14.

Bob Devine, president of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, said much of that 49-day period would already be up by the time the Supreme Court makes a ruling.

“I don’t feel that they have the best interests of the patients of Montana in mind,” he said.

It will take at least four months for the Department of Public Health and Human Services to implement the changes, department spokesman Jon Ebelt said. That includes sending notices to providers who have more than three patients, notifying patients who no longer have providers of their options and updating the medical marijuana registry.

About 350 of the state’s 476 providers would have to discontinue their services, health officials said. Approximately 10,000 of the 13,594 patients would be cut off from their supply.

“We are concerned about the ability of thousands of patients with serious medical conditions to access a treatment that has been approved by their doctors,” Ebelt said. “Because of these concerns, we support delaying this decision until the 2017 Legislature has a chance to respond.”

The attorney general’s office “has no position on DPHHS’ claim,” Barnes said.

The state Legislature passed the 2011 law after a medical marijuana boom that led to abuses and widespread recreational use. Besides the three-patient limit, the law requires the automatic review of doctors who recommend the drug to more than 25 patients in a year and bans marijuana advertising.

Other provisions of the law have been in effect since 2011, such as stricter requirements to prove a medical condition that qualifies for the medical marijuana registry.