Cotter: Pot Policy Doesn’t Undermine Montana Crackdown

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A new federal marijuana policy doesn’t undermine a recently completed three-year crackdown on large Montana providers by the U.S. attorney’s office, and authorities will still be able to prosecute future cases, U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter said Friday.

The Justice Department said Thursday it will allow states to regulate marijuana as long as they enforce strict laws to keep it away from children, the black market and federal property. Marijuana remains an illegal drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but Washington and Colorado, which have legalized its recreational use, will be allowed to establish their own regulations in producing, possessing and taxing the drug, the federal agency said.

The new policy comes three months after Cotter’s office wrapped up its largest-ever drug-trafficking investigation, with 33 marijuana provider convictions. That, plus a strict 2011 overhaul of the state’s medical marijuana law — which is being challenged in court — has caused the demise of a once-booming Montana medical marijuana industry.

Cotter said the new policy still emphasizes enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, and those convicted in the Montana crackdown weren’t following state laws.

“I don’t think it would have changed how we conducted business,” he said.

When marijuana providers operate outside of the policy, Cotter said his office will still prosecute those cases.

“I think we have to see how it evolves over time,” he said. “It’s not going to affect the way we do business here in Montana.”

Cotter said one possible consequence of legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington will be increased trafficking into the state.

“I believe that there will be opportunities for organized crime to get into the marijuana business and I have a sense that what we will see will be an increase of marijuana traffic from those states into Montana,” he said.

Since the 2011 federal raids of major Montana medical marijuana providers, followed by the state law restricting the use and sale of the drug, the number of users and providers has plummeted. Medical marijuana providers in the state went from 4,848 in 2011 to 291 in July, while the number of registered users has gone from more than 30,000 to just 7,122, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Chris Lindsey, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project in Montana, called the new policy an important milestone for regulated access to marijuana and reflects the federal government’s realization it has more important things to do than undermine voter-enacted laws.

“It is past time that Montana develop a regulatory system that functions much like those of other well-regulated states, instead of expecting that only seriously ill patients can or should grow medical marijuana for themselves,” he said in an email to The Associated Press.

Lindsey also was one of the 33 medical marijuana providers convicted in Cotter’s crackdown.

An East Helena woman has filed a proposed 2014 ballot initiative to legalize the recreational use of marijuana similar to those that passed last year in Washington and Colorado. The Montana secretary of state’s office has cleared the proposed measure for signature gathering.

A similar effort in 2012 failed to gather enough signatures by the filing deadline.

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