Current medical marijuana law still challenged in court, legislature unwilling to amend
Montana’s original medical marijuana law, enacted by voters in 2004, was gutted by the legislature during the 2011 session when it enacted SB 423. The new law was immediately challenged in state court. The presiding judge issued an injunction on many of the most unworkable provisions, finding they violated the state constitution. That injunction has remained in place since the law went into effect in June 2011, despite a legal challenge by the state attorney general.
An effort to repeal SB 423 made it onto the ballot for the 2012 election, but was unsuccessful because unfortunately many voters thought it was designed to repeal medical marijuana entirely.
During the last legislative session, Rep. Kelly McCarthy introduced four common sense bills to repair the current medical marijuana law and essentially remove those parts of the law that the court had blocked. HB 340, HB 341, HB 342, and HB 343 would have freed recommending physicians from audits by the Board of Medical Examiners, allowed marijuana providers to receive compensation, allowed providers to serve more than three patients, and prohibited law enforcement from warrantless searches. Each of these provisions are a part of the current law, but were blocked due to the injunction. Unfortunately, common sense did not prevail, and the bills did not make it out of committee. Similarly, Sen. Dave Wanzenried sponsored a bill that would have overhauled the medical marijuana program entirely, SB 377. It, too, did not emerge from committee.
While the legislature was unwilling to improve medical marijuana laws in the state, it was willing to create a draconian DUI law that allows law enforcement officers to charge a person with DUI if the person has five ng/ml or more of active THC in his or her blood. Without a doubt, people should not drive while impaired. However, patients may have that level of THC in their blood long after any impairment has worn off. This law is bad for medical marijuana patients because it does not reflect on their ability to drive safely. HB 168 passed both houses by a wide margin and will become effective as law on October 1, 2013.
Feds Raid, Prosecute Montana Medical Marijuana Providers
During and following President Obama’s election campaign, he repeatedly stated that he did not think federal law enforcement resources should be spent going after medical marijuana program participants in compliance with state law. Nonetheless, the federal government focused a lot of taxpayer money on Montana in what many believe was an effort to stamp out the medical marijuana industry and encourage the state legislature to repeal the law. While many small businesses did survive, and the legislature was not successful in its repeal effort, a series of federal raids on March 14, 2011 did cause many patients and providers to go underground. Twenty-four locations were raided in a single day, and over 30 people were ultimately charged and convicted by the federal government.
One of the raided facilities was Montana Cannabis. One of the partners, Richard Flor, was sent to prison for a five-year sentence after pleading guilty. He later died in custody due to complications with his qualifying medical condition. Another partner, Chris Williams, was also sentenced to a prison term of five years. A third partner, Tom Daubert, a political consultant who was instrumental to the success of the 2004 medical marijuana campaign, had separated from the company before the raid but was still charged and sentenced to five years' probation. Chris Lindsey, a medical marijuana attorney, had also separated but was sentenced to five years' probation. Chris currently works as a legislative analyst for Montana and other states for the Marijuana Policy Project. The story of the federal raids, the legislative craziness during and after them, and the Montana Cannabis story can be seen in the documentary Code of the West.
Please write Pres. Obama and your Congress member to ask them to stop these outrageous attacks on medical marijuana providers.
Montana’s marijuana laws; efforts to change them
In Montana, possession of even a single joint for non-medical purposes can land you in jail for six months, while possession of 60 grams or more (a little over two ounces) can result in a sentence of up to five years. These stiff marijuana penalties cause related negative consequences. Check out this 2009 report by Jon Gettman, Ph.D. for more about the negative consequences of Montana’s marijuana laws. Since Dr. Gettman’s report was issued, arrest rates have continued to increase. In 2011, there were 1,335 arrests for marijuana-related offenses, 94% of which were for possession. The number of marijuana arrests more than tripled since 2003. At the same time, law enforcement solved only 19.8% of all rapes reported and 8.3% of all burglaries, including home invasions. Instead of arresting adults for possession of a product that is safer than alcohol, law enforcement should focus its limited resources on going after real criminals.
There have been efforts, both by voters and lawmakers, to allow police to focus more of their time on real crime rather than marijuana users. In 2006, Missoula County, Montana voters made marijuana possession law enforcement officers’ lowest enforcement priority. Unfortunately, the legislature passed a bill designed to prevent localities from passing similar initiatives in 2011. The sponsor maintained that it would nullify the Missoula County initiative, but it likely applies to all future initiatives as well.
In 2009, Rep. Brady Wiseman (D-Bozeman) sponsored H.B. 541, which would have decriminalized marijuana and made possession of up to 30 grams a civil infraction, punishable only by a $50 fine. Unfortunately, the bill died in committee after a 9-9 vote. To ask your legislators to sponsor a similar bill next time they are in session, you can click here. Or, you can ask them to end prohibition entirely.
Thank you for supporting MPP. To stay updated on the status of marijuana policy reform in Montana, be sure to subscribe to MPP's free legislative alert service.