HELENA — The Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a ban on medical marijuana sales does not violate the constitutional rights of registered users or providers, overturning a lower judge's decision to block part of lawmakers' restrictive rewrite of state regulations.
The justices ruled that the portion of the 2011 state law that limits the number of patients per provider to three and prohibits those providers from making a profit does not violate the Montana Constitution's right to privacy or to pursue employment and health.
Last year, District Judge Jim Reynolds last year blocked four provisions of the law from taking effect.
Medical marijuana advocates had argued the new law was an unconstitutional violation of registered patients' right to pursue good health and privacy, while also violating the providers' right to pursue employment. The plaintiffs had asked the high court to expand Reynolds' decision and block the entire state law.
But the Supreme Court said in its 6-1 decision that the Legislature was within its rights to gut the voter-approved initiative that brought medical pot to the state. The court said rights to health and privacy do not protect medical marijuana use.
"In pursuing one's own health, an individual has a fundamental right to obtain and reject medical treatment. But, this right does not extend to give a patient a fundamental right to use any drug, regardless of its legality," the opinion by Justice Michael Wheat said. "Thus, we conclude, in pursuing health, an individual does not have a fundamental, affirmative right of access to a particular drug."
The high court said there is a constitutional right to pursue employment, but that right does not extend a right to any particular job, or employment free of state regulation. The court said medical marijuana providers are horticulturalists, free to generally pursue horticulture work.
Wheat went on to say the regulation of a medication is within the government's interest of protecting public health and does not violate an individual's constitutional rights.
The Legislature enacted the law as a reaction to public concern over the rapid growth of a medical marijuana industry that included retail storefronts, thousands of providers and tens of thousands of patients.
Even after Reynolds' decision, other restrictions in the state's crackdown remained in place. That, along with a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute medical marijuana growers under federal law, led to a severe reduction in the state's medical marijuana industry.
Some aspects of Reynolds' decision were not challenged, such as his move to block a portion that allowed warrantless searches of medical marijuana premises.
The Montana Supreme Court returned the case to Reynolds for further review, telling him that the state law does not face the strict constitutional hurdles he had originally applied.
The high court said the state only needs to prove that its new law is "rationally related to a legitimate government interest."
The justices pointed out that medical marijuana is illegal under federal law.
"The Plaintiffs cannot seriously contend that they have a fundamental right to medical marijuana when it is still unequivocally illegal under the Controlled Substances Act," Wheat wrote.
Justice James Nelson was the court's lone dissenter, arguing that the Montana court system should not attempt to legitimize medical marijuana laws by issuing opinions on the matter. Any change in the drug's legality must come from the federal government, and the state Supreme Court should order Reynolds to dismiss the case entirely, Nelson wrote.
The ruling comes less than two months before voters make their own decision on the matter. A ballot initiative asks voters to reject the Legislature's restrictive law, and return to the original law enacted by voters in 2004.