Marijuana battle enters new phase after high court decision

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Medical marijuana supporters are pushing back on new restrictions to the program at a time when providers are closing down.

On Thursday, the owners of Montana Advanced Caregivers held a barbeque at their south Billings location. Patients were stocking up on medical marijuana because the future of the business was uncertain, said co-owner Jason Smith.

At the same time, Smith and his business partner, Rich Abromeit, needed to shed some of their own stock or risk holding an illegal amount once the law becomes fully enacted.

On Feb. 25, the Montana Supreme Court upheld provisions of the Montana Marijuana Act, a 2011 bill that put greater limitations on the medical marijuana trade. The law restricts providers to three patients apiece, a provision which many in the business believe leads to closure.

Montana Advanced Caregivers once boasted 400 patients. On Thursday, those at the shop wondered where they would turn to for marijuana.

“They feel abandoned, which is an issue from a physician’s standpoint,” said Dr. Michael Uphues, a Billings doctor of osteopathy and family practitioner who has worked with medical marijuana patients for 10 years.

Concern for patients

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which runs the medical marijuana program, shares that concern. In response to questions about the department’s transition under the new law, a spokesman replied with a statement.

“DPHHS is concerned for the thousands of patients with conditions like cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy who have been prescribed medical marijuana by a licensed physician and who could find themselves suddenly without an effective treatment as a result of the Supreme Court ruling,” the statement said.

There are more than 13,000 registered cardholders in the medical marijuana program and 476 providers in the state. In its statement, the health department said that it will work on a regulatory transition plan that “protects these patients to the greatest extent possible.”

One of those patients is 55-year-old Helen Wilson. She said she has serious arthritis that limits her mobility. She also has allergies to many of the traditional prescription medicines and said that marijuana has been the only thing that’s worked.

Wilson said that she still plans to get marijuana if Montana Advanced Caregivers shuts down.

“Black market, like everybody else,” she said. “What choice do I got?”

The Supreme Court decision was a blow to the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, the Bozeman-based organization that brought the original lawsuit to battle the rollback law.

After the decision, longtime board member Bob Devine stepped in as the organization’s president. He said that they will be filing a motion for the Supreme Court, requesting a transition period for businesses and patients. He said the motion will buy them at least an additional two weeks.

“What we’re trying to do is prevent undue harm to the patients in Montana,” Devine said.

He said that the motion would include a supporting affidavit from the state health department.

Upholding law

The Montana Attorney General’s Office argued in favor of the rollback law in the Supreme Court case. After the court decision, Attorney General Tim Fox applauded the move.

“I am grateful to the justices for upholding the rule of law and recognizing that it’s the legislature’s rightful purview to set state policy on this important issue,” Fox said in a statement.

The 2011 law was a response to abuses of the medical marijuana program that came during a dramatic increase in the number of registered cardholders. There were concerns that people with minor medical ailments were getting medical marijuana for recreational use. Some physicians required only a teleconference to make a recommendation for the drug.

The Supreme Court voted to enact the law after a lengthy legal battle, but some worry that it will be too restrictive to patient access. Abromeit said that for many of them, his business is the only way to safely access marijuana.

“What we do is patient care,” he said. “It’s not the recreational market.”

Expanding access

Outside of the courts, the Montana marijuana debate could be settled through ballot initiatives, which is how the medical program was first approved in 2004. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association recently introduced one of their own, which is aimed at expanding access to medical marijuana. The initiative was submitted on Feb. 29 and is being reviewed by the state.

Two other ballot initiative campaigns have been gathering signatures for months. One, sponsored by a Billings businessman, will look to repeal medical marijuana provisions and align the drug with federal law.

The other, sponsored by a Glendive man, aims to legalize recreational use. The two sides have gone back and forth online and in public on the issue.

Whether by judge or by voter, the battle over marijuana isn’t over. For Abromeit and Smith, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. The viability of their business can change in a day following a court decision. But they said that a three-person limit under the new law will shut them down.

“All these people who built this whole thing,” Abromeit said. “It’s definitely a community service.”

SOURCES: http://www.billingsgazette.com, by MATT HUDSON

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