HELENA, Montana Many if not most of Montana's 4,800 medical marijuana suppliers will be forced out of business within two months under a newly passed overhaul of the state's 7-year-old law legalizing pot for medicinal purposes.
The state legislature approved the bill last week in answer to critics who said loopholes in the original 2004 medical marijuana law enacted by ballot measure were being exploited by some as a pretext for recreational pot smoking and large-scale drug trafficking.
But medical marijuana advocates say the regulatory reform bill was deliberately crafted to make it unworkable. Tom Daubert, head of the group Patients and Families United, called it "repeal in disguise."
Last month Governor Brian Schweitzer vetoed an outright repeal sent him by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Schweitzer, a Democrat in his second term, said he was unhappy with the new legislation but would allow it to become law without his signature -- it takes effect on July 1 -- because he feels the status quo is worse.
The number of Montana residents carrying cards allowing them to lawfully possess and use pot for treatment of one ailment or another has jumped from 4,000 in 2009 to nearly 30,000 this year.
Meanwhile, medical pot-growing facilities and dispensaries, many of them operating under one roof, have swelled to 4,848 statewide, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Over half the growers supply just one or two patients, the agency said. But all operate with little state control other than a quota that limits them to six plants per patient.
Last month, federal agents raided marijuana growers and distributors in 13 cities across Montana in a crackdown prosecutors said was aimed at supply operations that were using the medical marijuana law to conceal narcotics trafficking.
Some lawmakers have said it was their goal to sharply curtail the number of legal medical cannabis users.
"The bigger the thing gets, the more likely we are to have seizures and arrests," said state Representative Cary Smith, a Republican from Billings.
"The smaller we keep it -- where you have a person growing for their self, the less likely we are to run into a problem."
The new law tightens limits on cultivation to no more than three patients per grower and four plants per patient. It also bans all advertising and promotion of medicinal pot and abolishes storefront dispensaries altogether.
It further outlaws any profits in the supply of medical marijuana, barring growers from even charging to recoup the cost of cultivating the drug.
Supporters say this was aimed at ensuring that those who cultivate a substance still listed under federal law as an illegal narcotic do so strictly on the basis of compassion. But critics say such restrictions make it difficult for some legitimate patients to obtain their medicinal pot.
"If I was a man in my 70s living in eastern Montana, first of all I don't know who I would ask to grow my medical marijuana for free, or that I would know how to do it myself," said Democratic Representative Ellie Hill of Missoula.
Schweitzer and some lawmakers faulted the bill for failing to establish a registry of growers so elderly patients living in a rural part of the state could find legitimate suppliers.