Montana medical marijuana advocates are hoping to get an initiative placed on the November ballot that would loosen restrictions imposed by a state Supreme Court ruling in February. They filed a petition to delay implementation on Friday, just as the ruling was about to take effect. Pictured: Marijuana flower is trimmed at a Colorado marijuana dispensary in December 2013. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Montana medical marijuana advocates file petition, get restrictions delayed

HELENA, Mont. — Medical marijuana advocates are asking the Montana Supreme Court to delay implementing a ruling last month that will limit providers to selling the drug to no more than three patients and force the closure of the state’s large dispensaries.

A petition for rehearing was filed Friday, the deadline before the ruling was to take effect upholding most of a 2011 state law imposing severe restrictions on medical marijuana. Attorney James Goetz provided The Associated Press a copy of the petition before it was filed with the court.

It requests a transition period through the end of the next legislative session, which would be sometime in April 2017. It also asks the court to consider lifting the three-patient limit.

The transition period would prevent the disruption of patient care, ease providers’ fear of prosecution and help state officials prepare for enforcing the ruling, Goetz wrote in the petition.

The Supreme Court rarely takes up petitions for rehearing after a ruling. However, the act of filing the petition delays implementation of its ruling and grants dispensaries a temporary reprieve while the court considers the request.

If the court agrees to the yearlong delay, the status quo would be kept while advocates attempt to place an initiative on November’s ballot to loosen the restrictions. If that fails, advocates would lobby the state lawmakers next year for changes to the law, Goetz said.

The head of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, which is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the 2011 state law, said any additional time could help vulnerable patients from losing their source of medical marijuana.

“This is a catastrophe, when it comes down to it, for a lot of people,” said Bob Devine, MTCIA president and owner of the Spark1 dispensary in Bozeman.

Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes did not have an immediate comment on the filing, but said state attorneys will respond promptly in court.

The state Legislature passed the 2011 law after a medical marijuana boom that led to abuses and widespread recreational use. By then, the number of registered users had grown to more than 30,000 and there were more than 4,800 providers.

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. The Supreme Court struck down a provision that would have prevented providers from charging patients for marijuana.

At the end of February, there were 13,594 registered users and 476 providers. Twenty-six of those providers sell to more than 100 patients each. Devine’s Spark1 is one of them.

Some have already left the state, Devine said. If the Supreme Court denies the reconsideration request, those who remain will have to hunker down and hope that the proposed voter initiative makes it onto the November ballot.

“There are those that are running off to Oregon, those committed to this and not going anywhere, and there are those in between,” Devine said. “We feel that in the end, Montanans will see the benefit to this, as opposed to trying to do away with it.”