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Montana court upholds medical pot limits

HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that restrictions on medical marijuana sales do not violate the constitutional rights of registered users or providers, overturning a lower judge’s decision to block part of lawmakers’ restrictive rewrite of state regulations.

The justices ruled that the portion of the 2011 state law that limits the number of patients per provider to three and prohibits those providers from making a profit does not violate the Montana Constitution’s right to privacy or to pursue employment and health.

Last year, District Judge Jim Reynolds blocked four provisions of the law from taking effect.

Medical marijuana advocates had argued that the new law was an unconstitutional violation of registered patients’ right to pursue good health and privacy, while also violating the providers’ right to pursue employment. The plaintiffs had asked the high court to expand Reynolds’ decision and block the entire state law.

But the Supreme Court said in its 6-1 decision that the Legislature was within its rights to gut the voter-approved initiative that brought medical pot to the state. The court said rights to health and privacy do not protect medical marijuana use.

“In pursuing one’s own health, an individual has a fundamental right to obtain and reject medical treatment. But, this right does not extend to give a patient a fundamental right to use any drug, regardless of its legality,” the opinion by Justice Michael Wheat said. “Thus, we conclude, in pursuing health, an individual does not have a fundamental, affirmative right of access to a particular drug.”

The Legislature enacted the law as a reaction to public concern over the rapid growth of a medical marijuana industry that included retail storefronts, thousands of providers and tens of thousands of patients.

Even after Reynolds’ decision, other restrictions in the state’s crackdown remained in place. That, along with a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute medical marijuana growers under federal law, led to a severe reduction in the state’s medical marijuana industry.

Some aspects of Reynolds’ decision were not challenged, such as his move to block a portion that allowed warrantless searches of medical marijuana premises.

The Montana Supreme Court returned the case to Reynolds for further review, telling him that the state law does not face the strict constitutional hurdles he had originally applied.

The high court said the state only needs to prove that its new law is “rationally related to a legitimate government interest.”

The justices pointed out that medical marijuana is illegal under federal law.