A hurdle too high

There's good news and bad news for the state's medical marijuana patients and providers. The good news is that petitioners have gathered more than 30,000 signatures to place a referendum of Senate Bill 423—the Montana Legislature's measure severely restricting the medical marijuana industry—on the ballot in November 2012. That's more than the required 24,337 signatures due by Sept. 30, though county election offices haven't verified all of them.

The bad news is that petitioners have all but given up on the effort to have SB 423 suspended until voters weigh in. That requires as many as 43,247 signatures, and they must come from at least 15 percent of voters in each of at least 51 of the legislative representative districts, meaning a number of the 30,000 signatures already collected likely wouldn't count toward the total.

Rose Habib, of the petitioning group Patients for Reform—Not Repeal, says she and fellow marijuana advocates are "pleased that we're able to show the legislators that they are not representing what the voters want," but considers it "tragic" that SB 423 will stay on the books until next November.

That's not necessarily the case. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association continues its legal challenge to the constitutionality of SB 423. In late June, District Judge James Reynolds issued a preliminary injunction, blocking parts of SB 423 from going into effect. The Montana Attorney General has since appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court. Missoula attorney Chris Lindsey, who specializes in marijuana cases, expects the MTCIA to cross appeal, challenging SB 423's severability clause, which says that if any portion of the law is deemed unconstitutional, the rest remains law.

"If you find enough problems with SB 423, does it make sense to even call it a law anymore?" Lindsey asks. "So the potential is there for the Supreme Court to have enough issues with SB 423 that the entire thing is suspended. It's another route back to I-148"—the vaguely-written citizen initiative that created the Medical Marijuana Act in 2004.

With MTCIA's case far from being settled, it appears the state's medical marijuana laws will remain in flux until next November—and perhaps long after, if Montana voters reject SB 423. Lindsey warns patients and providers that, in the meantime, the legal landscape is "something of a minefield."

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