Will Montana be the first state to lose their medical marijuana program? It is certainly the first state to have moved backward (as the country moves forward) in regards to access.

Starting in 2009, between the Ogden memo that made it seem that the federal government would not prosecute medical marijuana providers in states with programs and the emergence of travelling clinics offering fast and easy green cards, the number of patients and providers grew exponentially over 18 months, the number of patients skyrocketing from 4,000 to 30,000.

Of course, the number of providers grew, too. Welcome to the principal of demand and supply. In response, the 2011 Montana Legislature passed a law to dismantle the program. The key provisions that did this were disallowing compensation for the provider (you had to provide it for free) and you could only do so for up to three people.

When it came to dismantling the program, the federal raids of 2011 helped, too, shutting down some of the larger providers and frightening patients out of participating.

The Montana Cannabis Information Association challenged the law and was successful in getting several provisions enjoined, mostly critically the ones involving compensation and the allowable number of patient-clients.

The state appealed and Montana Supreme Court sent the decision back down to the lower court, saying that Judge Reynolds of Helena had used the wrong lens in making his decision, using “strict scrutiny,” as opposed to “rational scrutiny.” The right to vote or travel is protected by strict scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny, the state must prove the provisions aren’t unconstitutional. With rational scrutiny, they must only prove the provisions are a reasonable means to an end the state has the right to pursue.

Back to the lower courts it went, and Reynolds came to the same conclusion, and so the program has continued to operate modestly under the 2011 law with these key provisions enjoined.

This month, the state again appealed Reynold’s decision; the Supreme Court will rule again and the bets are that they will decide in favor of the state. The decision isn’t about the rightness, wrongness or effectiveness of medical marijuana so much as whether the legislature has the right to do what it did in restricting access, as it has with the 2011 law. Bets are, they probably did.

It may take up to a year if the case moves slowly. But even with such a timeline, should the court reverse Reynold’s decision, medical marijuana, in practical terms, will no longer be available in Montana. Even if a legalization initiative was on the 2016 ballot and was successful, there would still likely be a gap of at least four to six months without access, and currently, there is no effort to put it on the ballot.

Without a successful initiative, the hope for preserving medical access would fall to the 2017 Legislature. The state legislature thus far has not demonstrated any interest in dealing responsibly with the medical marijuana issue. Even if they passed a bill that reflected the program as it currently operates with the enjoined provisions (Sen. Robyn Driscoll carried such a bill in 2015), it could still take until June 2017 for that law to go into effect, which would mean possibly 14 months without medical marijuana access in Montana.

Meanwhile, the human cannabinoid system increasingly demonstrates its capacity to fight cancer. Many kinds of cancer cells overexpress cannabinoid receptors, and with cannabinoid treatment, respond with a chemical cascade within the cancer cell that results in apoptosis (self-destruction of the cancer cell). Cancer is just one of the conditions it functionally addresses.

Also meanwhile, in 2014, Colorado raised $53 million in tax revenue on marijuana sales. In Denver, violent crimes have decreased, and according to an article in Mother Jones, the new industry in Denver occupies 4.5 million square feet; the price for commercial properties has doubled or tripled. Statewide, traffic fatalities have declined.

The marijuana industry isn't just happening, it’s developing, and as federal law changes to reflect the trend, entrepreneurs in other states will be way ahead of Montanans. Montana may once again end up providing the labor for profits that find their home elsewhere.

K.M. Cholewa has been a political writer, consultant and lobbyist in Montana for 20 years. Her writing on marijuana science and politics has appeared at Salon. My novel, "Shaking Out the Dead," was published in June 2014.

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