As other states voted to legalize medical cannabis, Montana was the lone state looking to restore its voter-approved (62 percent) MMJ law instituted in 2004 and later nearly repealed by House Bill 161. This bill, passed by both houses in 2011, was in response to the drastic increase in patients, from 2,000 patients in 2009 to 31,000 just two years later. More people using alternative medicine? Very scary, indeed.
Though passed by both houses, House Bill 161 was vetoed by Governor Brian Schweitzer. However, Senate Bill 423 passed shortly thereafter without the governor’s signature and severely restricted the program. SB 423 limited dispensaries to only three patients each and required a state review of any doctor who prescribed cannabis to more than 25 patients in a year. As a result, the number of patients dropped to 9,000 in 2014. The law also allowed for unannounced inspections by law enforcement.
In 2011, a series of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raids shut down shops and charged operators with prison time and huge fines. What stores were left faced a pared down MMJ law that severely limited their operations. Dispensaries were not allowed to charge more than base costs, giving them little incentive to operate, especially when they could only service three patients.
SB 423 opponents got Initiative Referendum 124 on the ballot, which would have invalidated the changes if passed, but 57percent of Montana voters rejected the ballot measure. Likewise, the limitations on Montana’s MMJ law were challenged and spent four years languishing in the Montana courts. It eventually reached the state supreme court, and in early 2015, the Montana justices upheld most of SB 423 in a six-to-one decision. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case in June 2016.
The provisions of SB 423 took effect in August 2016, even though a new measure on the November ballot sought to challenge it once more.
"It's hard for patients to live like that, not knowing if they'll have their cards next year," said Elizabeth Pincolini, operator of an MMJ referral service, according to NBC News. "It's pretty desperate."
A car dealership owner from Billings sponsored a measure that would repeal the MMJ program entirely and prohibited any Schedule I substance from being legalized in Montana, but fortunately the measure that made the ballot was the Montana Medical Marijuana Initiative (I-182) that repealed many of the SB 423 tenants, including the three-patient limit on dispensaries, the automatic state review of doctors and unannounced law enforcement inspections.
I-182 was expected to fail in the November 2016 election. Instead, the residents of Montana approved it with 56 percent of the vote, making medical cannabis legal again in practice, not just theory.
As far as the current non-medical situation, possession of a single joint could land someone in jail for six months. While Montana is a predominantly conservative state, its strong libertarian streak may see these harsh penalties and draconian laws reversed in future legislative sessions.
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