HELENA, Mont. — Montana voters may have successfully reversed severe restrictions state lawmakers imposed on medical marijuana, but patients will have to wait nearly eight months before they can step into a dispensary again.
The main portion of a citizen’s initiative passed in Tuesday’s election — striking a law that went into effect this summer that limits marijuana providers to three patients — will take effect June 30 due to an error when the measure was drafted.
The Montana Supreme Court upheld the law earlier this year after a five-year legal battle, leading to a mass shutdown of dispensaries across the state on Aug. 31. Initiative backers had meant for the measure to immediately take effect, saying that it was essential to restoring thousands of patients’ access to their medicine with as little disruption from the shutdown as possible.
Officials with the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical marijuana program, have advised patients that they intend to operate under the June 30 effective date, regardless of the clerical error.
Jeff Krauss, a former Bozeman mayor and the treasurer of the ballot committee supporting the measure, said the important point is that voters clearly and resoundingly supported the initiative.
“Montanans voted with their heart. They saw the suffering and they saw how it could be alleviated, and they voted with their heart,” Krauss said. “I think this going back and forth on how it gets implemented, that will get worked out.”
He said organizers could explore asking state lawmakers to move up the effective date, though the next legislative session doesn’t begin until January. Backers of the measure also could ask Attorney General Tim Fox to intervene, he said.
That is unlikely, Fox spokesman John Barnes said.
“We’re not aware of any authority this office has under the law to change the language of an initiative passed by voters,” Barnes said.
State lawmakers passed the restrictive law in 2011 in response to a marijuana industry they say had run amok. Patients were signing up by the hundreds after short doctor consultations in conventions that traveled across the state, which ballooned the patient registry to more than 30,000.
Lawmakers said the voter initiative that legalized medical marijuana in 2004 was being abused and they needed to rein it in. Besides the three-patient limit, the law also tightened restrictions on what medical conditions could qualify and flagged doctors who recommended more than 25 patients in a year.
As a result, the number of medical marijuana patients plummeted to a low of 7,000 in mid-2013, but rose again as the constitutional challenge against the law played out in court. The Supreme Court’s decision in March to uphold the law, followed by its implementation in August, caused those numbers to drop again from 12,436 people on the registry in September to 7,785 in October.
Of those remaining enrolled patients, only about 1,000 have providers registered with the state because of the three-patient limit, according to the state health department.
The citizens’ initiative also reverses the restrictions on doctors and medical conditions, too. It also adds post-traumatic stress disorder as a qualifying condition.
Krauss said lawmakers who may be thinking of legislation next year to reinstate the restrictions should take note of how Tuesday’s vote.
“Having been an elected official four times, I think listening to the voice of the people is a good idea,” he said.