These are existential times for Montana's medical marijuana industry.

Will its businesses be legal as of July 1, or won't they? Or will some aspects be legal and some not?

The legal wranglings over the 2011 Legislature's drastic curtailment of the industry have practical ramifications, too.

Do marijuana growers and providers keep their plants and product in the expectation that District Judge James Reynolds in Helena will strike down the new law? Or destroy them in case he doesn't?

Maintain their leases? Or shutter their storefronts?

"Right now, us dispensary owners are in limbo-land," said Tom Charlton, who owns M4U, a medical marijuana shop off North Reserve Street.

"It's kind of a Catch-22," said Better Life Montana general manager Rob Kinzinger. "What do you do?"

Under the circumstances, not much, said Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir.

"We're just sitting back and waiting for the dust to settle," Muir said. "There's no point in spending too much time planning."

The new law would replace Montana's 2004 voter-approved initiative that legalized the medical use of marijuana. It would, among many other restrictions, require providers to give marijuana to their patients, rather than sell it, as under the present system.

It also would allow patients to grow their own pot in limited quantities, or acquire it from caregivers - who would be able to grow for only three people apiece, as opposed to an unlimited number now.

At a three-day hearing in Helena before Reynolds last week, patients complained vehemently about that provision, saying that it's difficult to grow medical-quality pot.

But Muir said the new law gives providers an easy way to stay legal.

"If on June 30, (providers) would call each and every one of their patients and distribute their plants, it would be perfectly legal," he said.

Reynolds, however, said during last week's hearing that he found that part of the law especially problematic. "The state is truly relying on guardian angels to come forward," he said.

The judge also said he might wait until June 30 to issue a ruling, and that he might strike down all or part of the law.

The Montana Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, seeks a temporary injunction, claiming the new law is unconstitutional. More than 30,000 people in Montana now have medical marijuana cards, up from about 4,000 in 2009.

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Industry members took heart from Reynolds' comments.

"We're going on like it's going to be struck down," said dispensary owner Kevin Kerr of the Montana Cannabis and Hemp Foundation. He's maintaining the lease on his business at the corner of Broadway and Orange Street, figuring that even if the new law goes into effect July 1, he can use the space for a computer business that he also runs.

Charlton owns his office space in the North Reserve Business Park, and said he'd simply sell it if the law takes effect. But after last week's hearing, he's not worried.

"We're activated," he said of industry members. "I know about fighting, and being a Marine, I'm not going to give up without a fight."

After the restrictions, laid out in a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeff Essmann of Billings, became law without Gov. Brian Schweitzer's signature, some industry members quickly formed the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and hired Bozeman attorney James Goetz to represent their interests.

Industry members also are seeking to place a referendum on the ballot, specifying that the Legislature can't overturn provisions of voter initiatives.

If Reynolds puts the new law on hold, and then a referendum is approved, "this is all going to be a moot point," Kerr said. In effect, "it will say, ‘The people have spoken. Live with it.' "

On the other hand, if July 1 arrives with the new law intact, law enforcement agencies stand ready to destroy whatever product growers and dispensaries have on hand.

Missoula County Undersheriff Mike Dominick said his office has long had the capability of destroying large quantities of illegal drugs, something it does routinely as a result of any prescription drug turn-in days.

"We have a professional evidence technician and she is prepared to take in excess medical marijuana," he said.

Muir said Missoula police can likewise dispose of the plants and product. But police won't be doing a sweep of medical marijuana businesses come July 1.

"We're not going to rush out and make a big splash," said Muir. "Frankly, I don't want them to turn it in to me. I would rather they give it to needy patients than have to destroy it."

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or CopsAndCourts.com.

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