Jars of marijuana sit on a counter during a sale at the Denver Kush Club pot shop in north Denver.(David Zalubowski, Associated Press file)

Judge rules Montana medical marijuana dispensaries can reopen immediately

HELENA, Mont. — A judge on Wednesday cleared the way for Montana’s medical marijuana dispensaries to reopen after a three-month hiatus by ruling that a drafting error in a voter-approved ballot initiative should not delay the measure’s implementation.

District Judge James Reynolds of Helena ruled the error that pushed back the effective date of a key portion of the initiative until July 1 should not keep very ill patients from accessing the drug immediately.

“The folks that are maybe the most in need are the least able to provide, to grow their own,” Reynolds said in making his ruling. “I think speed is more important than niceties.”

The initiative approved by voters last month struck down a law passed by the Montana Legislature in 2011 that limited medical marijuana providers to three patients each. The three-patient limit took effect Aug. 31 after a five-year court battle, forcing the closure of medical marijuana dispensaries across the state and leaving thousands of registered users without providers.

The authors of the ballot measure, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, had intended for the three-patient limit to be struck down immediately upon passage of the initiative.

But a last-minute flurry of activity between initiative sponsors and state officials resulted in two new sections being added to the measure, changing the numbering of the sections in the initiative, according to the group’s lobbyist, Kate Cholewa. The part of the initiative that laid out the effective dates of the various sections of the measure was not updated to reflect the final changes, she said.

The advocacy group took their case to Reynolds, who had twice ruled to block the three-patient limit while the challenge to the 2011 state law was making its way through the courts. Reynolds said the effective date issue 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.

The judge, in an aside, noted that federal and state laws regarding marijuana remain in conflict while the number of states legalizing recreational and pot is growing.

“We’re in a morass here,” he said of the disparity between federal and state laws. “Folks are speaking with their votes.”

Cholewa said it was not clear how much time providers would need to get their operations up and running. She acknowledged that shortages in marijuana supplies, a rush to physicians who refer patients and how the state Department of Public Health and Human Services administers the changes could cause some delays.

“The people who work providing marijuana in Montana were, let’s face it, they were jerked around quite a bit,” Cholewa said. “They are somewhat used to it and very good at coming back. ”

The state health department did not oppose the advocacy group’s effort to change the effective date through the courts, attorney Nicholas Domitrovich said.

“We have the program in place, we have the staff in place,” Domitrovich said before the ruling. “We are prepared to act, but we feel we don’t have the proper legal cover right now.”