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Montana Supreme Court to hear arguments on whether to lift block on medical marijuana law


HELENA, Montana — State attorneys will ask the Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday to allow them to enforce restrictions on medical marijuana that have been blocked for four years by a Helena judge, restrictions advocates say would cut off access for very ill patients.

The restrictions, part of a broader law passed by the Montana Legislature in 2011, aim to ban medical marijuana sales and advertising, plus automatically review any doctor who recommends the drug for more than 25 patients in a year.

It will be the second time the issue has gone to state's high court after District Judge James Reynolds blocked those provisions from taking effect in 2011. The Supreme Court earlier ruled that Reynolds had used the wrong standard to review the constitutionality of the restrictions — but Reynolds blocked them again in 2012 with a permanent injunction after applying the correct standard.

The Department of Justice appealed Reynolds' injunction to the high court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.

"The court has the ability to cut off complete access to patients with debilitating illnesses and whose very lives depend on being able to use cannabis as a medication," said Mort Reid, a medical marijuana user, provider and head of the Montana Cannabis Information Association. "I would hope that the Supreme Court would take that into consideration before they make a decision."

The association filed the original lawsuit challenging the restrictions. Reid, 68, has a farm in Rockvale where he grows marijuana for about 40 patients.

Attitudes toward marijuana have changed in the four years since the law was passed, Reid said. Three states have passed voter initiatives allowing recreational use of the drug — though the association isn't advocating extending that to Montana — and several presidential candidates are in favor of allowing the states to decide their own roles in marijuana issues, he said.

Medical marijuana has been legal in Montana since 2004, when voters approved ballot initiative I-148. By 2011, the number of registered users had grown to more than 30,000 people and the number of providers topped 4,800.

Marijuana opponents complained the law was being abused by a booming black-market industry that led to widespread recreational use. Around the time the 2011 bill was being considered, federal authorities raided large medical marijuana providers and growing facilities across the state.

As a result, lawmakers passed the bill with the restrictions that Reynolds blocked. Other parts of the bill, including stricter requirements of medical evidence of a condition that merits the drug's use, went into law.

Department of Justice attorneys argue that state lawmakers had the discretion to pass the law and Reynolds was wrong to block it.

"The Legislature was unwilling to continue to allow the commercial sale of marijuana in light of federal illegality and the abuses that occurred under I-148's 'free market' for marijuana sales," state attorneys said in their appeal.

User and provider registry numbers plummeted after the law's passage, but they have been recovering. As of October, there were nearly 13,000 registered users and 467 providers in the state.

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