Montana and Marijuana

2016 is going to be a big year for cannabis. As a result, we are ranking the fifty states from worst to best on how they treat cannabis and those who consume it. Each of our State of Cannabis posts will analyze one state and our final post will crown the best state for cannabis. As is always the case, but particularly so with this series, we welcome your comments. This is our eighth post in the series and the following is a recap of where we are with the rankings, from worst (number 50) to this week’s number 41: Montana; 42. Iowa; 43. Virginia; 44. Wyoming; 45. Texas;  46. Kansas;  47. Alabama;  48. Idaho; 49. Oklahoma;  50. South Dakota.

Montana

Criminal Penalties. Montana punishes possession of less than 6o grams of marijuana as a misdemeanor. The first offense earns up to 6 months in prison and a fine between $100 and $500. A second offense can get one up to 3 years in prison and a fine up to $1,000. Possession of over 6o grams is a felony offense and warrants a 5-year prison sentence and fine up to $50,000. The penalties skyrocket for those convicted of possession with intent to distribute, which can earn a 20-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine.

The sale or delivery of marijuana is punished extremely harshly in Montana. A person faces a mandatory minimum of one year in prison and a potential for life imprisonment for the distribution of any amount of marijuana, with or without compensation, plus another potential $50,000 fine. The mandatory minimums for sale or distribution can increase if the offense occurred near a school or if the marijuana was distributed to a child.

Medical Marijuana. The Montana Supreme Court recently issued a decision that decimated the State’s medical marijuana program. The ruling limits the commercial sale of marijuana by allowing providers to have only three patients each. This is a result of the court upholding a 2011 law meant to curb the flourishing medical marijuana industry. Understanding how Montana has regressed so far on cannabis requires some context.

Montana was an early state to legalize medical cannabis, having done so in 2004 by voter initiative. The market was slow until 2009, when the Feds released the Ogden Memo, stating that the U.S. Department of Justice would de-emphasize pursuing patients and caregivers in states with clear cannabis laws. Montana’s marijuana industry exploded shortly after with 30,000 of the state’s one million residents signing up as patients.

Many Montana residents resented the market boom and viewed the State’s medical marijuana regime as a front for a covert recreational marijuana program. This led Montana’s conservative lawmakers to com up with Senate Bill 423, a “repeal in disguise” essentially designed to eliminate Montana’s liberal medical marijuana regime. The governor signed this bill into law in May 2011.

The Montana Cannabis Industry Association then sued the state in 2011 to stop the new law’s implementation. On January 2, 2015, State District Court judge James P. Reynolds struck down as unconstitutional key provisions of SB 423. The Montana Supreme Court’s recent ruling is essentially intended to overrule Judge Reynolds decision.

By limiting providers to three patients, the Montana Supreme Court ruling will likely lead to the closing of all medical marijuana businesses in Montana, because three patients is just not a business. Montana NBC affiliate KECI chronicled the impact of the decision through the eyes of a local business owner:

Katrina Farnum, the owner of Garden Mother Herb in Missoula, said she has no idea who will help most of her 124 patients with their chronic illnesses.

“The people who I’ve been dealing with for the last two days are in tears and don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” she said.

She’s been in business for over 12 years.

“There are a lot of people who are very upset and angry and are sad, and they have every right to be,” Farnum added.

Future Legalization. There is a sliver of hope for Montana because its voters will have an opportunity to fully legalize marijuana this coming November and many believe the recent Montana Supreme Court ruling will galvanize support for this. The Marijuana Legalization Initiative, CI-115, will amend Montana’s constitution to  allow adults to possess, consume or purchase marijuana. CI-115 has yet to gain the requisite number of signatures to make it on the ballot, and so we urge Montana residents to go here and sign their name in support of the initiative.

Bottomline. Montana has very harsh criminal penalties. But for years, these severe penalties were somewhat offset by the State’s liberal medical marijuana laws. By recently rolling back its medical marijuana regime, Montana has “earned” itself a spot near the bottom of our rankings. We hope Montanans will rise up and enact their initiative to “re-reform” their marijuana laws.

But until then, if you are going to consume marijuana, the best way to see “Big Sky Country” is from the sky/air.