Marijuana display jars are shown at a Colorado shop in January 2014. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

Montana won’t demolish its medical marijuana program just yet

The state Supreme Court says the restrictions that are coming for patients and providers won't be enforced until Aug. 31. Advocates are currently working on getting an initiative on the November ballot to undo controversial 2011 legislation that restricts Montana medical marijuana providers to a limit of three patients

HELENA, Mont. — The state Supreme Court said Monday it will delay enforcement of the severe medical marijuana restrictions it has upheld until Aug. 31.

In February, the court ruled in favor of provisions of a 2011 state law that limited medical marijuana providers to selling the drug to a maximum of three patients.

The Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which had challenged the legislation, has said the rollbacks would force the closure of dispensaries and leave patients without a legal way to obtain the drug.

The group sought a delay in implementing the ruling until after the 2017 legislative session. State health officials also argued for a delay, saying it would take them at least four months to notify patients and update the registry.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote in Monday’s ruling that “immediate implementation of the court’s opinion will cause serious disruption” in the program.

“This is devastating for cancer patients, seizure victims, people in hospice, and other Montanans and their families across the state,” said Kate Cholewa, a spokeswoman for the cannabis association.

Advocates for medical marijuana earlier this month began a signature drive to place an initiative on the November ballot to undo the 2011 legislation, known as Senate Bill 423, that supporters say gutted a 2004 initiative that legalized medical marijuana in the state.

The new initiative, I-182, would remove the three-patient limit put in place by the legislature, establish licensing fees to pay for administering the program and include post-traumatic stress disorders among the conditions permissible for treatment using medicinal marijuana. It would also require providers to be licensed and their dispensaries to undergo yearly inspections.

Senate Bill 423 had been in legal limbo over the past five years and key provisions went unenforced.

McGrath was joined in his majority ruling by the two other justices and a district judge sitting in for Justice Patricia Cotter.

Justice Michael Wheat dissented, saying he would have granted a rehearing on the three-patient limit and delay implementation of the ruling as requested by the cannabis association.