Medical cannabis on display at a Colorado dispensary. (Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Mass shutdown of Montana medical marijuana dispensaries predicted

HELENA, Mont. — Marijuana dispensaries will have at least two weeks to prepare for severe rollbacks to Montana’s medical marijuana law, though most will likely have to shut down, the head of an advocacy group that tried to block the restrictions said Friday.

On Thursday, the Montana Supreme Court upheld nearly all of the provisions of a 2011 state law to roll back much of the 2004 voter-approved initiative that legalized medical marijuana.

The ruling means that marijuana providers can sell to no more than three registered users each; doctors who recommend the drug to more than 25 patients in a year will be automatically reviewed; and marijuana advertising will be banned.

The ruling does not take effect until the judgment is formally entered in district court, which won’t happen before March 10, Supreme Court clerk Ed Smith said. That could be delayed further if the plaintiffs who sued to block the 2011 law ask the court for a re-hearing of the case.

Mort Reid, president of the lead plaintiff Montana Cannabis Information Association, said he doubted such a request would change anything.

“It’s highly unlikely that we would be granted a re-hearing on this, so that’s probably not an option,” Reid said. “My advice to all the providers across the state is in two weeks’ time, don’t be out of compliance.”

There were 471 medical cannabis providers for 13,640 registered patients at the end of January, according to the most recent data from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Of those providers, 325 supply the drug to more people than the three-patient limit set by state lawmakers and upheld by the Supreme Court’s decision. The largest provider has more than 770 patients.

Reid acknowledged most of those large operations will have to shut down. Even if all 471 continued to operate with only three patients each, that would leave more than 12,200 patients without a legal way to buy medical marijuana, he said.

“People are getting panicked,” Reid said. “I’m sure they’re trying to stock up and get ready for the impact.”

Enforcement of the new restrictions mainly will be carried out by city and county authorities, Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said.

“The attorney general’s office will be communicating with relevant state agencies and local law enforcement regarding timing and enforcement,” Barnes said.

The health department, which oversees the state’s medical cannabis program, is working on the details of how and when they will communicate to providers, patients and physicians about the implications of the Supreme Court decision, spokesman Jon Ebelt said.

The state’s medical cannabis industry boomed in 2009 after a U.S. Department of Justice memo suggested prosecuting marijuana cases would not be a priority. By 2011, the number of registered users had grown to more than 30,000 in a state of 1 million people, and the number of providers topped 4,800.

The growth led to abuses and widespread recreational use, state officials said. Then, federal authorities raided large medical cannabis providers and growing facilities across the state, effectively shutting down the industry and prompting the 2011 restrictions by state lawmakers.

A district judge blocked the restrictions while the advocacy group’s lawsuit made its way through the court system, giving marijuana dispensaries a five-year period to operate. Over that time, the number of registered users and providers crept up again.

Reid said the best chance to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision is a proposed ballot initiative his organization is sponsoring that would loosen the restrictions. The initiative proposal is under legal review by state officials.

“We are confident we can get it qualified and we will get the signatures to get it on the ballot,” Reid said. “I think there are enough people angry by the Legislature’s action in 2011 to get it passed.”