HELENA — Montana's medical marijuana overhaul is due to take effect in less than two weeks, but the new law has been difficult to interpret and may have unintended consequences, the state's chief health regulator said Tuesday
The law will ban commercial marijuana sales on July 1, leaving patients to either grow their own or find a provider who will be limited to care for a maximum of three patients.
About a third of Montana's medical marijuana users grow their own currently, while the rest obtain the drug from registered providers.
Marijuana distributors must turn over all their supplies to authorities before the new law takes effect. But there is no apparent way for patients to obtain seeds or plants after July 1 without breaking the law.
James Goetz, attorney for the medical marijuana industry group questioning the new law's constitutionality and seeking to block it, asked state health regulator Roy Kemp whether that provision was a Catch-22.
"I would agree that under your original analysis it seems to lead you back to the beginning, which is an impossible place to begin," Kemp said.
Kemp said an unintended consequence of the law will be to prohibit a husband from growing marijuana for his sick wife if she is a registered cardholder and the two live in the same home.
The law also requires a complete overhaul of the state's medical marijuana databases and application system in a very short period, Kemp said.
"It is a difficult statute to understand and implement. Not impossible," Kemp said.
The Montana Cannabis Industry Association is suing the state, saying the new law violates medical marijuana patients' constitutional rights to privacy and due process. They are asking Helena District Judge James Reynolds to issue an injunction blocking the law from taking effect.
The new law bars marijuana providers from making a profit and limits them to providing marijuana to just three patients. It also places additional checks on conditions for qualifying for the drug and on the doctors who certify medical marijuana patients.
State attorneys defending the law say it will close loopholes in the voter-approved initiative that established medical marijuana use in Montana in 2004, while keeping access for the most seriously ill patients.
Of the more than 30,000 patients, the largest age demographic is under 30, indicating abuses under the current law, said Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy.
One part of the new law would require the state Board of Medical Examiners to review any doctor that recommends more than 25 patients for medical marijuana in a year. That provision is meant to make sure no doctors are allowing ineligible people to receive cards.
On Tuesday, Great Falls physician John Stowers testified that 25-patient limit was an arbitrary number that is not seen anywhere else in medicine.
He acknowledged that there have been abuses of the system, but said he has established stringent checks on patients who ask him for a medical marijuana certification.
But if he is reviewed by the board for certifying more than 25 patients, that review will be a stigma he will have to carry regardless of the outcome of the investigation, he said.
"Even if they find in my favor, it will be a black mark on my record for the rest of my life," Stowers said.
Molly said the Board of Medical Examiners has not yet come up with its procedures on how it will implement that part of the new law.
The hearing began Monday with two patients saying they did not know where they would access medical marijuana if the law took effect. It was expected to continue through Tuesday.