Pubdate: Sun, 17 Jul 2011
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2011 Helena Independent Record
Author: Charles S. Johnson
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)


The status of medical marijuana in Montana remains somewhat 
unsettled, despite a Helena district judge's decision last month to 
temporarily block some more onerous restrictions of 2011 state law.

The attorney general's office may appeal parts of Judge James 
Reynolds' June 30 order. The opposing lawyer for the Montana Cannabis 
Industry Association doesn't plan an appeal, but voiced concern over 
part of the decision. The judge will set a hearing, probably later 
this year, on whether to grant a permanent injunction.

Petitioners are starting to gather signatures for a referendum 
seeking to stop the 2011 law in its tracks by suspending it and 
prevent it from being enforced until Montanans decide in 2012 whether 
to reject or keep it. An East Helena woman who used medical marijuana 
for back problems wants to treat pot like alcohol and filed the 
initial paperwork last week for a constitutional initiative to 
decriminalize marijuana.

Medical marijuana providers (formerly caregivers) are scrambling to 
submit the needed paperwork to comply with the new law. Patients must 
to file new papers identifying their providers. And Jason Christ of 
Missoula, who started the controversial traveling "cannabis caravans" 
to sign up thousands of cardholders, is launching new efforts. (See 
related story.)

Although no one wants to talk about it publicly, the specter looms of 
more federal raids of medical marijuana growing operations here.

After the number of medical pot cardholders nearly quadrupled over a 
year to 27,300 last December, many legislators were determined this 
year to repeal or at least toughen the 2004 voter-passed initiative 
legalizing medical marijuana.

After Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the repeal bill, lawmakers passed 
Senate Bill 423 to rein in an industry that lawmakers believe had 
careened out of control. After Schweitzer let it become law without 
his signature, this law was promptly challenged in court by the 
Montana Cannabis Industry Association and others.

On June 30, Reynolds preliminarily enjoined key parts of the law. He 
halted provisions that would have forbidden providers from charging 
for medical pot and that would have limited them to three patients 
apiece. He blocked a provision that would have allowed law 
enforcement officials to make unannounced inspections of places where 
providers grow marijuana. Reynolds stopped a provision that would 
have required the Board of Medical Examiners to automatically review 
any physician who recommended medical marijuana for 25 or more 
patients in a year.

Attorney General Steve Bullock's office is deciding whether to appeal 
parts of Reynolds' ruling to the Supreme Court or seek a full hearing 
during the permanent injunction hearing, said Jim Molloy, one of the 
attorneys arguing the case.

"We do have concerns about a holding that would suggest that there is 
a fundamental constitutional right to sell marijuana," Molloy said. 
"We think the Legislature acted within its authority when it tried to 
allow access to people who truly need it, but take away the 
commercial industry that created so many of the problems."

The attorney general's office also may ask Reynolds to reconsider his 
temporary stay on inspections since he's allowing commercial medical 
pot providers to exist.

James Goetz, the Bozeman attorney representing the Cannabis Industry 
Association, said he's not considering an appeal. However, he's 
concerned over Reynolds' leaving in place the part of the law that 
prevents people in the custody or under the supervision of the 
Corrections Department or youth court from getting medical marijuana 
cards. The judge said challenges to this ban should be made on a 
case-by-case basis.

"We are seeking how Corrections and how Health and Human Services 
deal with that," Goetz said. "Some of these probationers are in 
serious medical need. There may be future action on that."

The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until there is a 
court hearing on the request for the permanent injunction.

By the time a hearing is held, however, the 2011 law could be suspended.

A group called Patients for Reform--Not Repeal has launched a 
referendum effort so voters in November 2012 can decide the fate of 
the law. To do so, they need the signatures of 5 percent of the 
voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts or at least 24,337 signatures.

To suspend the law from being enforced until voters decide, they need 
signatures of 15 percent of the voters in 51 of the 100 House 
districts. That will take between 31,238 and 43,247 signatures by 
Sept. 30 depending on which districts they use, according to the 
secretary of state's office.

Even Patients for Reform-Not Repeal conceded on its website that 
possibility of obtaining enough signatures to suspend is "extremely 
difficult," adding, "Chances are that the Legislature's bill will be 
in effect until next year when Montanans vote."

Anti-SB423 Petitions haven't hit the streets as quickly as some had 
expected. The reason is because the group wants to train the 1,000 
volunteers on the legal requirements to gather signatures.

"Nobody wanted anyone to gather signatures until they've been 
trained," said Kate Cholewa, spokeswoman for the Cannabis Industry 
Association. "We want to be by the book and make sure everyone does 
it right. It's not that simple."

Meanwhile, changes in the law have created confusion for both medical 
marijuana providers and patients.

"I think people are scrambling," Cholewa said. "I think of all the 
paperwork that has to happen for caregivers to become providers. The 
patients have to do a change-of-provider form. There's bureaucratic 
work that has to be done for people to be safe and legal. The 
Department (of Public Health and Human Services) is in the position 
where they need to make modifications in order to reflect the changes.

"As a result, there's a lot of people who do not have access right 
now, people who have dropped out."

In response, department spokesman Jon Ebelt said the agency at this 
time is accepting, but yet not processing, provider applications and 
has received about 200 so far.

"They are being date-stamped and will be processed in the order they 
are received," he said "Updates to our computer system are near 
completion, and we will begin processing provider applications very soon."

Ebelt said the department is able to process medical marijuana 
patient applications, so that work has continued since the new law took effect.

For apparently the first time since the 2004 law took effect, the 
number of registered marijuana cardholders in Montana has dropped. 
There were 30,036 cardholders in June, down from 31,522 in May.

The sponsor of Senate Bill 423, Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, 
R-Billings, vowed to seek a legislative audit examining how the 
department has administered the program. He was incensed to learn 
recently that one physician had recommended marijuana for more than 
one-fifth of all Montana cardholders.

"Can any physician have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship with 
6,861 patients?" he asked. "And the district judge is prohibiting us 
from referring this physician for review by the Board of Medical Examiners."

The Republican senator accused Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his 
administration of being responsible for the problems.

"I think the blame for this entire fiasco lies at the feet of the 
Schweitzer administration for failing to follow the law," he said. 
"The light should have gone over in that department that there's a 
problem with some of those doctors and maybe we should be looking at 
what they're doing."

In response, Public Health and Human Services Director Anna Whiting 
Sorrell said in a statement, "The governor did not sign Senate Bill 
423 because it was blatantly unconstitutional and riddled with 
problems. ... The law was ambiguous and has conflicting provisions. 
The governor has always favored increased regulations over medical 
marijuana in Montana."
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