Marijuana Montana’s top story of 2011

HELENA — The collapse of the state’s once-booming medical marijuana industry after lawmakers passed tough restrictions and federal agents raided dozens of pot providers was Montana’s top news story of 2011, according to The Associated Press’ annual member poll. It’s the second straight year Montana editors have chosen medical marijuana the top story, but the industry couldn’t be any more different after just 12 months. In 2010, towns were scrambling to figure out how to deal with the pot shops that were popping up on street corners as a rapidly expanding registry rose from 2,000 users at the beginning of 2009 to a peak of more than 30,000 by June of this year. Since then, the bottom has fallen out. The number of registered users has dropped more than 36 percent from that peak, to just 19,239 people in November, as tougher standards to qualify for the registry have prevented many people from obtaining or renewing cards. The number of medical marijuana providers has dropped even more precipitously, from a peak of 4,848 in March to just 383 in November.

The decline started in March, when federal agents raided dozens of medical marijuana businesses, warehouses and provider homes. Agents seized drugs, cash, guns and vehicles, and the U.S. Attorney’s office warned state leaders that prosecutors would pursue anybody suspected of trafficking in the drug. The raids were the first blow to providers. Those who were raided went bust and many others closed down or went underground out of fear. As federal agents were carrying out the raids, state lawmakers were considering a repeal of the medical marijuana law that voters approved in 2004. The Republicans leading the Legislature said medical marijuana had gotten out of control and turned into a retail industry that went far beyond what the voters had intended. The Legislature passed the repeal and would have outlawed medical marijuana altogether had Gov. Brian Schweitzer not vetoed the bill and sent lawmakers back to the drawing board with time running out in the session.

They emerged with an overhaul that added many restrictions to the law, including a ban on making a profit from marijuana sales, stronger medical proof to register as a patient and a requirement to investigate any doctor who recommends more than 25 patients in a year. A marijuana advocacy group immediately sued to overturn the new law and began gathering signatures for a 2012 ballot initiative to repeal the changes. District Judge James Reynolds blocked several provisions from taking effect, including the ban on profits and the investigation into doctors. The judge’s block is temporary until the legal challenge plays out, but the Montana Cannabis Industry Association has gathered enough signatures to put a repeal question on the 2012 ballot. In the meantime, numerous medical marijuana providers who were targeted in the raids have pleaded guilty to federal drug trafficking charges.

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