HELENA — A judge on Thursday blocked Montana from enforcing a new law ending commercial medical marijuana operations, saying banning pot providers from making a profit will deny people a fundamental right to seek health care by legal means.
Helena District Judge James Reynolds issued a preliminary injunction against parts of a restrictive overhaul of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law, which was due to take effect on Friday. One part of the law would have limited marijuana providers to distributing to a maximum of three patients and barred them from receiving anything of value for their product.
The state hasn't banned any other industries from receiving compensation for their legal goods and services, Reynolds said in his ruling.
"The court is unaware of and has not been shown where any person in any other licensed and lawful industry in Montana — be he a barber, an accountant, a lawyer, or a doctor — who, providing a legal product or service, is denied the right to charge for that service or is limited in the number of people he or she can serve," Reynolds wrote.
Reynolds also blocked provisions of the law banning advertising of medical marijuana, allowing unannounced searches of providers and requiring an investigation into any doctor who recommends marijuana for more than 25 patients in a year.
The ruling means medical marijuana providers for now will continue to operate under many of the rules approved by voters in 2004, a law that critics say is riddled with loopholes and has allowed the industry to spin out of control.
Montana has more than 30,000 medical marijuana users in a state with a population with just below 1 million. That's one of the highest rates among the 15 states that allow medical marijuana use.
Critics say the law is too permissive and has created a booming retail industry that peddles a product considered an illegal drug under federal law.
The overhaul passed by the 2011 state Legislature followed an attempt to repeal medical marijuana use in Montana altogether, a bill that was vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Lawmakers approved the restrictive measures after federal agents in March raided two dozen medical marijuana operations and warned state leaders that prosecutors will pursue anybody suspected of trafficking in the drug.
The Montana Cannabis Industry Association sued the state after the bill was passed, saying the restrictions are an unconstitutional violation of the right to pursue good health and they interfere with the relationship between doctors and patients. In a three-day hearing earlier this month, the group asked Reynolds to issue an injunction temporarily blocking the entire law until the full case can be heard in court.
Assistant Attorney General Jim Molloy, who defended the new law for the state, said the right to health care does not give patients access to an unbridled, unregulated scope of options, and said marijuana is still an illegal drug under federal law.
He said it would be harmful if the judge blocked the entire law, but that the state would not object if three parts were temporarily delayed: the prohibition on marijuana providers advertising their services, the ability for law enforcement to hold unannounced inspections and a provision that would require a doctor to be investigated if he certifies more than 25 medical marijuana patients in a year.