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Marijuana industry looks to stop strict overhaul


HELENA — Medical marijuana supporters are planning to collect signatures for a voter initiative that would block the strict regulations that Gov. Brian Schweitzer says he will allow become law this summer.

Meanwhile, advocates for outlawing medical pot altogether say they won't push for their own referendum after the Legislature passed a repeal of the state law, only to see it vetoed by Schweitzer.

After that veto, the Legislature passed a bill that aims to rein in Montana's booming pot industry and avoid federal intervention. It would significantly limit who can access the drug by doing away with pot businesses, implementing strict growing rules and setting new standards for patients and the doctors who certify them.

Schweitzer has said that he will allow the overhaul bill to become law without his signature, even though he criticized it for its ban on letting providers sell marijuana to patients. Schweitzer said this bill is better than letting the marijuana trade continue to grow.

Medical marijuana, passed by voter initiative in 2004, has been a huge growth industry since the Obama administration said in 2009 it would not prosecute patients who abide by state law. There are currently nearly 30,000 registered users in the multimillion dollar trade.

Supporters say pot is an important drug to relieve the suffering of seriously ill people, while critics counter the law is being abused by those who don't need the drug.

Concerns over the industry in Montana were compounded in March by federal raids of large medical marijuana providers and a letter of warning from the U.S. attorney for Montana that the Department of Justice would make a priority of prosecuting pot businesses.

After having the GOP-favored repeal measure vetoed by Schweitzer, lawmakers agreed to pass a strict medical marijuana overhaul that would to appease the federal concerns by outlawing marijuana businesses. Pot business owners say it's not acceptable to take away their livelihood and limit access to patients.

After an ineffective and largely disorganized lobbying campaign this Legislative session, a number of marijuana growers and advocates have coalesced under a single organization, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, to try to hold back the overhaul and preserve the status quo.

The group now plans to be the lead organization in lobbying the governor to veto the bill before a May 13 deadline, crafting a ballot initiative and readying a possible lawsuit against the new restrictions.

The president of the association, Nathan Pierce, said if the governor doesn't change his mind his organization will try to collect enough signatures to suspend the marijuana overhaul before it becomes law and put the issue on the ballot.

The group will need signatures from 15 percent of registered voters in 51 percent of the state's House districts to suspend the law. If they get the signatures the issue will be put on the general election ballot in 2012 for a final decision by the voters.

Such voter initiatives are rarely attempted. Terri Knapp from the Office of the Secretary of State said that the details of the signature requirements and total signatures needed haven't been figured out yet because this type of referendum is so uncommon.

Members of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association are anticipating on needing between 75,000 to 100,000 total signatures.

"It's going to take a very large coordinated effort," Pierce said.

The group is aiming to collect all of the signatures by July 1; the date the most stringent part of the overhaul goes into effect, to prevent the new legislation from being enacted.

Pierce said that after having little input in the Legislative process, pot advocates realized they needed to band together to protect their industry.

"We've had a wonderful response by all areas of the cannabis community," he said.

On the other side of the issue, advocates for repealing medical marijuana altogether say they're pleased with the trend of recent events.

Cherrie Brady, from the pro-repeal organization Safe Community Safe Kids, said she would rather the drug be made illegal altogether but in the meantime the group will work to continue tight regulations in Montana and encourage other states to do the same.

"We honestly feel like what the legislators did is going to start a chain reaction," Brady said.

She said Safe Communities Safe Kids will work on a large scale to get other states to rethink their marijuana laws like Montana has but she sees no need to put the issue on the ballot at the moment.

Of the 14 other states and the District of Columbia with medical marijuana laws, none have attempted such a restrictive overhaul as Montana. Most have made minor adjustments to increase or decrease access to the drug.

But recent federal action is calling some of those laws into question. After signaling a hands-off approach in 2009, a number of U.S. Attorney's in recent months have issued letters saying the federal government could prosecute medical marijuana businesses.


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