SUPREME COURT RULING ON MONTANA’S SB 423 “REPEAL IN DISGUISE” DUE OCTOBER 2015
Montana was one of the early adopters of legal medical marijuana with the state’s residents having voted in 2004 to legalize its use. The law, combined with the subsequent easing of federal prosecutions for state compliant marijuana operations in 2009, created a cannabis boom in the state. At its peak, Montana had 30,000 medical marijuana patients and 4,900 providers for a population of just over a million residents; traveling clinics distributed marijuana licenses to large number of patients with providers setting up shops to fulfill the demand.
The proliferation of shops and increased visibility of marijuana resulted in a strong backlash in the state. The opposition pointed to MMJ shops that had opened near schools and churches, as well as the increase in people openly using marijuana. The public backlash culminated in a state wide raid of medical marijuana businesses by the DEA in 2011, which closed a large number of shops with their owners being charged under federal drug laws.
With the public getting more weary about legal marijuana, the Montana state legislature was able to pass a law SB 423, which has been deemed “repeal in disguise”, in 2011. The law limited MMJ providers to just three patients and made it illegal to make a profit, even from those three patients; they could only recoup the license application fees. In just over a year, the number of patients was reduced to less than 9,000 with providers numbering less than 400.
A suit brought by the Montana Cannabis Information Association to repeal the law resulted in halting the implementation of the law for the time being, with the judge on the case deeming the limitations on patients and profits as unconstitutional. The Montana Attorney General, Tim Fox, appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court, with a ruling due as early as October 2015. If the state supreme court rules in favor of the law SB 423 as it currently stands, it could effectively be the end of legal medical marijuana in Montana.
Implementation of SB 423 would make Montana the first state to go backwards in making medical marijuana available to its needy patients.
SIGNS OF LIFE AMIDST THE LEGAL MESS AND CONFUSION
Despite the pending uncertainty and the risk of prosecution, some medical marijuana providers have started to cautiously open shops to serve the public need and demand (390 providers in 2012 to 442 in 2015). The number of registered MMJ patients has started to increase again as well, going from under 9,000 in 2012 to over 12,000 this year; still far away from 30,000 patients who were registered in 2011.
It’s anybody’s guess how the Montana Supreme Court will rule on pending appeal. If all the provisions of SB 423 are upheld, there would be no financial way or motivation for MMJ providers in the state to continue serving the state’s medical marijuana patients. The law would eliminate providers without addressing the existing need and demand. And that will force patients to go to the black market, increasing crime and putting needy patients at risk. The exact reasons that medical marijuana was legalized in the first place by the voters of Montana.
As it’s worded, Montana’s SB 423 prohibits “dispensaries” but allows “providers”. And what the “providers” do for patients can’t be referred to as a “business”.
A CASE FOR BETTER & MORE SENSIBLE SELF-REGULATION FOR THE MARIJUANA INDUSTRY?
The current state of marijuana laws in Montana is a mess. MMJ providers in the state are operating in the dark about what exactly is allowed and not allowed in light of the current pending appeal. People must parse their words to ensure they don’t refer to things using the “wrong” term. And, most importantly, medical marijuana patients are in a state of limbo about their long-term prospects on being able to obtain the needed medicine in a safe and consistent manner.
Did the marijuana industry in Montana bring this upon itself?
Back in 2004, Montanans voted overwhelmingly in favor of legalizing medical marijuana by a margin of 62% to 38%. By 2011, the public sentiment had shifted to a point where the state lawmakers were able to push through SB 423, trying to cut the legs out from the state’s medical marijuana patients and providers.
There will always be an opposition to the legalization movement. And in Montana, these forces were able to move the discussion to where it is today from where it was ten years ago by pointing to things which went beyond what the public signed up for when it legalized medical marijuana for the state.
Tales of traveling cannabis caravans issuing MMJ licenses to large numbers of people. Shops opening near schools and across the street from churches. Out-of-state doctors doing cursory consultations, sometimes via online interviews. People smoking marijuana openly in public. It all reinforced the narrative that medical marijuana laws are just a cover for people “who want to get high”.
In a state of just over a million residents, there was almost 30,000 registered MMJ patients and 5,000 providers. Many started doubting whether all these MMJ patients were actually taking marijuana for medical purposes, and more importantly, it cast doubts on the medicinal benefits of cannabis in general.
Montana legislature’s response of trying to ban medical marijuana altogether is certainly misplaced, but it was an opening that was handed to the legalization opponents on a silver platter.
Better Self-Regulation to Get Ahead of The Opposition
The push back to the legalization movement in Montana should serve as a warning and guide. As the cannabis industry matures, it needs to develop standards and guidelines that are designed to help and protect patients and consumers. Medical marijuana providers must be meticulous in their record-keeping and ensuring that MMJ patient licenses are correct and up-to-date. Providers must move toward operating their dispensaries like pharmacies in order to solidify medical marijuana’s position as legitimate medicine.
And the cannabis industry must do a better job of distinguishing between medical and recreational marijuana; the image that some are using medical marijuana laws as just a guise for getting high must be addressed, not only through education, but also by self-regulating to avoid situations like traveling cannabis caravans.
Legalization movement is asking the public to accept marijuana as medicine. It can’t, then, turn around and try to “recruit” patients like medical marijuana is some consumer product. The “gold rush” mentality needs to shift to focus more on the MMJ patients who actually need the medicine for real illnesses.
The movement needs to be in agreement that medical marijuana and recreational marijuana are two very different things, and the public trust in voting for medical marijuana must be respected.
What is your opinion? Are some exploiting the medical marijuana laws? If so, how is this affecting the overall legalization movement? Sound off in the comments below!