The Missoulian, out of Montana, is reporting this week that while the state Health Department there is still receiving applications, it hasn’t issued any new medical marijuana cards since May 13th, which was the day before a strict new MMJ law took effect.

According to Department of Public Health and Human Services official Roy Kemp, no new applications can be processed until the new system, operating under the new legislation, is in place. For this reason, Kemp told the press, “We will not issue any cards until June 1, when the next phase of the law triggers in.” He added that this policy extends beyond new applications to renewals and replacements of lost cards.

Concurring with Kemp’s pronouncement was Jon Ebelt, the official spokesperson for the Department, who said his organization was, “…in compliance with the law, and we’re not processing applications.”

Unfortunately, as Montana Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann (R-Billings), who sponsored SB 423, the senate bill imposing the new strictures on medical marijuana, the Health Department website doesn’t say that. Instead, he says, it states that applications will continue to be processed through June 20th.

However, the Senator added, “If they are complying with SB423 and suspending issuance of cards and do not intend to resume issuance until June 1, I’m happy with that.”

Since the legislature passed Essmann’s bill without Governor Brian Schweitzer’s signature, there has been some confusion about how it should be implemented. In fact, just last week there was a quote from Kemp distributed via the AP wire service saying that it wasn’t feasible to halt the issuance of medical marijuana cards while the laws were shifted. At the time, he said that his agency would continue to process new applications. Yet on Tuesday, Kemp said no new cards had been issued since May 14th.

It should come as no surprise, then, that reactions to Kemp’s statements are mixed at best.

Meanwhile, a legal opinion written last week by Lewis and Clark County Deputy County Attorney Jeremy Gersovitz for County Attorney Leo Gallagher, stated, “In conclusion, after spending one hour on this matter, I can find no authority in SB423 for DPHHS to continue to issue medical marijuana cards unless they have proceeded under emergency rules.”

Kemp said that once emergency rules are in place, the department would once again begin issuing MMJ cards. It was given the authority to make such rules, but as of yet, none have been adopted.

The law serves to repeal and overhaul a seven-year-old law that had legalized the use of marijuana for specific medical reasons. It restricts the availability of MMJ by requiring patients either to grow it themselves or to obtain it from providers who can only grow pot for three or fewer people, and who cannot charge for it. In addition, growing facilities are banned by SB 423.

As well, the law strengthens the restrictions on who may use medical marijuana for “severe chronic pain,” the most common reason most patients give in order to obtain cards.

The new law is largely a reaction to a surge in the number of patients with MMJ cards in the state. In September, 2009, only about 4,000 patients were authorized users. Today, more than 30,600 have cards, and federal officials have been raiding many of the larger medical marijuana growing facilities around the state.

The law is not unchallenged, however. The Montana Cannabis Industry Association has filed a lawsuit attempting to have SB 423 declared unconstitutional, and is also planning to begin gathering signatures in order to suspend the new law until the people of Montana can vote on it as a referendum in the November, 2012 election.

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