The collapse of Montana’s once-booming medical marijuana industry after a conservative Republican-controlled Legislature all but shut the program down with tough restrictions — in addition to raids where federal agents hit dozens of providers — was Montana’s top news story of 2011, according to an annual member poll from The Associated Press.
It’s the second straight year medicinal cannabis has been chosen as the state’s top story, reports Matt Volz at the Great Falls Tribune
. But a world of change has occurred in Montana’s medical marijuana scene since a year ago.
In 2010, many towns were panicking, trying to figure out how to deal with the medical marijuana dispensaries that seemed to be popping up everywhere. The skyrocketing industry saw Montana’s registry of medical marijuana patients rise from 2,000 users at the beginning of 2009 to more than 30,000 by June of this year.
|Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s veto pen was all that stood between Montana patients and a complete medical marijuana repeal in 2011.
But then the Legislature inserted itself into the process — ignoring the will of the voters as expressed in 2004, when 62 percent approved the legalization of medicinal marijuana — the the bottom fell out.
The numbered of registered patients has fallen by more than a third, to just 19,239 people in November, as tougher standards to qualify for medicinal cannabis authorization have prevented many seriously ill patients from obtaining or renewing their cards.
The number of medical marijuana providers has dropped even more sharply, from a peak of 4,848 in March to just 383 in November.
The fall-away began when federal agents swept across the state in March, busting down the doors of medical marijuana dispensaries, warehouses and provider homes. Gung-ho agents seized weed, cash, guns and vehicles, and the local U.S. Attorney’s office warned that federal prosecutors would go after anyone “suspected of trafficking” in marijuana.
Besides the obvious effect of shutting down the raided providers, the raids also had a widespread chilling effect across the state, intimidating others into closing down or going underground.
Even while federal agents spread fear across the state, the GOP-run Legislature was considering a repeal of the 2004 medical marijuana law approved by a wide majority of Montana voters. The Republicans claimed the industry had somehow “gotten out of control.”
The Legislature actually passed the repeal, and would have outlawed medical marijuana altogether if it hadn’t been for the veto pen of Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer, who sent lawmakers back to the drawing board with time running out in the legislative session.
The conservative-controlled body then offered up a strict overhaul adding many onerous restrictions to the law, including a ban on making profit from cannabis sales, making it more difficult to be authorized for medical marijuana, and even an absurd a requirement to “investigate” any doctor recommending more than 25 patients a year.
Marijuana advocates immediately sued to overturn the new law, and began gathering signatures for a 2012 ballot initiative to repeal it. District Judge James Reynolds blocked some of the provisions from taking effect, including the ban on profits and the investigations into doctors who recommend pot.
The judge’s block will only last as long as the legal challenge makes it way through the courts, but the Montana Cannabis Industry Association already has enough signatures to put a repeal question on the November 2012 ballot.
Meanwhile, numerous medicinal cannabis providers who were targeted in the raids have pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges.