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HELENA – Montana is hardly alone among the states that have legalized medical marijuana and now are struggling with how to regulate a rapidly growing and increasingly contentious industry.

The most common regulatory effort, officials say, focuses on those who provide the drug to approved patients.

Moves are afoot in Oregon and Colorado to regulate marijuana “dispensaries,” which are largely unregulated in Montana.

“Since the Obama administration changed federal policy, there’s been a real drive in states with medical marijuana laws to actually regulate their industry at a state level, especially the providers of medical marijuana,” said Mike Meno, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., a group advocating for lesser state penalties for the medical and non-medical use of marijuana.

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California blazed the medical marijuana trail in 1996, and 13 more states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, most of them through voter-passed initiatives that bypassed state legislatures.

A turning point in the industry occurred last October, when the Obama administration directed federal prosecutors to back off from pursuing cases against medical marijuana patients in states that had legalized it.

In an April report, the National Conference of State Legislatures said some states without dispensary regulations are seeing a boom in these businesses, perhaps to gain a foothold before stricter regulations occur.

Montana’s law is silent on the issue of dispensaries or stores, said Tom Daubert of Helena, founder of Patients & Families United, a medical marijuana patients’ support group. Daubert is also part of a statewide co-op of growers.

“But I think under ordinary business law and circumstances of life, it makes sense for a caregiver with patients to have a location where the patient can come in for their medicine,” he said.

Stores cropping up now in Montana can supply it only to patients registered to obtain the drug from a caregiver, and aren’t open to anyone, Daubert noted.

A Montana legislative committee is starting to examine whether new regulations are needed here.

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In Colorado, Gov. Bill Ritter is expected to sign two bills affecting doctors who recommend medical marijuana and tightening how the drug is regulated.

According to the Denver Post, the legislation would require all dispensaries to be licensed by state and local governments, with fees to cover costs. The annual fees set by the state are expected to cost thousands of dollars per dispensary; some have predicted they may reach $15,000 annually.

Dispensary owners will be required to have been Colorado residents for two years, with some exceptions. People with past drug felonies won’t be allowed to operate dispensaries.

Local governments or voters could forbid dispensaries in their respective communities, but not caregivers serving five or fewer patients.

Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado, said his medical marijuana advocacy group likely will sue over some provisions, including the residency requirements.

“We tried to convince the bill sponsors to focus on what’s best for patients,” Vicente said. “I think we came out with a heavy law enforcement focus, rather than a patient focus. Law enforcement, district attorneys and the governor, a former D.A., wanted to crack down and shut down a lot of these places, and I think they’ve probably accomplished it.”

Vicente said he wouldn’t be surprised if half of the existing 400 dispensaries end up closing because of high licensing fees. At least 30,000 Coloradans have medical marijuana cards.

Colorado state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said he voted for both bills, but had reservations about parts of the regulatory bill that he considered too “heavy-handed.” Yet he said he felt it was important for the Legislature to “rein in what many in Colorado saw as an out-of-control situation.”

“I also anticipate that many dispensaries will fail to survive in the emerging medical marijuana marketplace,” he added. It “will certainly hasten the demise of some dispensaries, but many would have failed on their own once the market stabilized.”

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In Oregon, which also has approved medical marijuana, supporters of a new initiative to create state-licensed dispensaries have turned in 112,000 signatures – or nearly 83,000 more than required to put their measure on the fall ballot, the Eugene Register-Guard reported recently.

The initiative would create a series of private, nonprofit, state-regulated dispensaries which would sell marijuana raised by licensed growers to the state’s 36,000 medical marijuana cardholders. Both dispensaries and growers would face state regulation, background checks, inspections and audits, and be subject to health and zoning regulations, the newspaper said.

Oregon cardholders now have to grow their own pot supply, find a caregiver or grower to supply it for them, or buy it on the street, the Register-Guard said.

“We think our initiative is going to get on the ballot, will pass and will work well,” John Sajo, executive director of Voter Power, a leading advocate of the initiative, said in a telephone interview.

The proposal also is expected to raise $1 billion over a decade for Oregon’s health department by imposing 10 percent taxes on dispensaries and pot farmers and annual licensing fees, Sajo said.

“We’ve looked at a lot of different models on how to regulate this industry, from state farms to patients growing their own,” he added. “We’ve concluded the best system is independent producers competing and selling to nonprofit dispensaries.”

Under the initiative, any patient can go to any dispensary to buy medical marijuana, just like any patient can go to any pharmacy to fill a prescription, he said.

Then there is California, where voters in November will vote whether to legalize marijuana altogether. Supporters submitted nearly 700,000 signatures, with about 523,000 deemed valid to qualify the measure for the ballot. A state study says the legalization might generate $1.3 billion in desperately needed state revenue for California.

As the Associated Press reported, “Full legalization could turn medical marijuana dispensaries into all-purpose pot stores, and the open sale of joints could become commonplace on mom-and-pop liquor store counters in liberal locales like Oakland and Santa Cruz.”

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at chuck.johnson@lee.net.

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