A Denver medical marijuana shop. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

After years of restrictions, revised Montana medical marijuana regulations underway

HELENA, Mont. — Montana lawmakers were a vote away Monday from sending the governor a bill that creates licenses, fees and regulations for medical marijuana distributors.

The bill endorsed by the Montana House attempts to regulate the medical marijuana industry after voters last November approved lifting restrictions that severely limited distribution of the drug.

The bill must pass a final House vote. The Senate previously approved it.

The measure requires state officials to track marijuana in the state from seed to sale, to protect against the drug being sold on the black market. It also requires nurseries and distributors to be licensed, for the marijuana to be tested and for registered users to have photo identification cards.

One opponent, Republican Rep. Derek Skees of Kalispell, pointed out that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. Until that changes, any state-level regulation would still put Montanans who sell or use the drug at risk, he said.

“Can the feds not come in tomorrow and go after these distributors if they decide so?” Seeks said.

Republican Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings says the measure is important to avoid having an unregulated industry such as the one that led to widespread abuses in 2010 and federal raids of dispensaries across the state the following year.

“We cannot afford to go back to the wild, wild West of 2010,” Essmann said.

Essmann sponsored a bill in 2011 that severely restricted medical marijuana. Among other provisions, it prohibited medical marijuana distributors from making a profit and limited them to providing the drug to three patients.

That bill became law and was put on hold for five years while a court battle played out. Last year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the three-patient distributor limit was constitutional, effectively shutting down dispensaries across the state.

Voters in November approved an initiative that rolled back many of the restrictions in the 2011 law. The bill being considered now would set rules for that initiative, instead of letting the state Department of Public Health and Human Services do it.