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The medical cannabis industry in Montana suffered a major setback yesterday when a state law took effect which restricts each dispensary to only serving three customers. This is one of the most significant blows to the medical cannabis movement in memory, one of the few cases in the US of a legal cannabis market being scaled back. Dispensaries are businesses like any other, and few businesses could survive on only three customers.

Montana limits the amount of medical cannabis each patient can purchase each month to one ounce, so at maximum, each dispensary could expect to sell nine ounces. Even worse, the Montana medical cannabis industry has already been up and running since 2004, and the state has currently enrolled over thirteen thousand patients and licenses 488 businesses.

At the height of the program, there were over 30,000 patients and 4,900 businesses. The program was slow to start but then saw huge increases after the Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announced they would not target state legal medical cannabis business in 2009. The number of patients grew seven-fold and the number of providers tripled.

Montana created its legal medical cannabis industry through a voter initiative back in 2004 passed with 62% of the vote. The industry faced opposition through a determined grassroots opposition, which seems to have been especially inflamed by the huge gains in the program between 2009 and 2011. Additionally, the state legislature members seem to be out to undo medical cannabis in Montana.

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The entire program faced dissolution in late 2011, but the law to totally dissolve the program was vetoed by then Governor Brian Schweitzer. Not to be discouraged, the legislature tried again after the veto and passed the law which went into effect yesterday, widely referred to as a “repeal in disguise.”

After the passage of the law, the state’s patient numbers dropped significantly from 30,000 to less than 9,000 in June 2012. Following the trend in patient numbers, the number of medical cannabis providers dropped from 5,000 to less than 400 in the same time period.

The 2011 three patient only law was blocked and dragged into court by the Montana Cannabis Industry Association. After five years of legal battles they lost, and the Montana Supreme Court upheld the law. In addition to only allowing providers to serve three patients, the law also required that doctors who recommend medical cannabis to more than 25 patients in a year must be automatically reviewed, and medical cannabis advertising is prohibited.

Both patients and providers are hopeful for a November ballot initiative that would reverse the three patient only restriction and breath life back into a dying industry. There are many patients who currently legally use medical cannabis, many of which will have nowhere to turn to access a medicine they have come to rely on. Here’s to hoping for a brighter future for the patients of the Montana medical cannabis industry.

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