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Medical Marijuana Businesses Getting Back on Track

After three-month hiatus, medical marijuana providers are ramping up again after judge's Dec. 7 decision

Nate Prince could almost hear the sighs of relief from his clients when a district judge ruled that the new medical marijuana law should go into effect immediately.

As the owner of FiveLeaf Organics medical marijuana dispensary in the Flathead Valley, Prince had been watching the November election closely to see what voters would do with ballot Initiative 182, which relaxed medical marijuana patient restrictions. The latest ruling, putting I-182 into effect, was a turning point.

“For some of my cardholders, going back to pharmaceuticals was not an option they wanted to consider, so legal access is a wonderful gift for many people,” Prince said.

It was also a relief for Prince, who has taken on the dispensary as a full-time job. Back in July, Prince was worried that his business would go belly up due to the law passed by the 2011 Montana Legislature limiting medical marijuana providers to three patients each.

Despite being passed in 2011, the law was tied up in courts until it went into effect this August. The patient-number limitations forced many dispensaries and providers to close up shop.

Voters approved I-182 on the Nov. 8 election, and District Judge James Reynolds of Helena has ruled that the effective date should be immediate, not July 1 as written on the initiative. That date, the judge determined, was a drafting error, and patients should not have to wait that long to access the drug.

Since the judge’s Dec. 7 ruling, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services has reported receiving about 1,300 applications for medical marijuana cards. As of November, Flathead County had 894 cardholders and 78 providers.

Total, there were 7,558 patients enrolled across the state in November, and more than 6,500 were without a designated provider. Before lawmakers changed the law in 2011, more than 30,000 people had enrolled in the program. This number was the impetus behind the 2011 law, which lawmakers said would close loopholes left open by the 2004 law approved by voters.

Prince said he’s had “a lot of interest” from new cardholders.

“People are so relieved to have legal access again,” he said.

He currently serves fewer than 20 clients, and 70 percent of them are over the age of 60. Prince said as long as the law allows for it, he hopes to expand his business.

But roadblocks remain. Other medical marijuana providers in the Flathead Valley, who asked not to be identified, said they would love to serve more customers, but the three-month hiatus on patients from August to December meant they couldn’t grow enough product to cover new people.

Prince said he’s facing that as well, but he believes the bigger issues in medical marijuana are yet to be tackled.

“This win for medical cannabis patients is not the end; it’s just the beginning,” Prince said. “As a group, we need to unify and focus on keeping access open for patients and building on I-182 to create a more workable law for both patients and providers.”

This means increasing the legitimacy of medical marijuana businesses in the eyes of the public, Prince said. Another provider said he was relieved a judge finally saw his business as a legitimate business.

“I don’t believe that we should have to operate from the shadows, tucked away in back alleys,” Prince said. “Medical cannabis has helped so many people, to keep suppressing its growth is a crime against humanity.”

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