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Helena judge hears arguments over restrictions in 2011 medical marijuana law

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HELENA, Montana — The medical marijuana industry continues its efforts to overturn restrictions in a 2011 law that sought to rein in the number of providers and users in Montana.

Bozeman attorney Jim Goetz told District Judge James Reynolds on Tuesday that even though the restrictions have been blocked by his court for almost three years, the law is still curbing the abuses the Legislature sought to address.

"We have kind of an experiment, we have actual evidence that certain features of the (law) were not necessary to accomplish its goals," Goetz argued. "The state's own witnesses have concluded that things are not only better, but much better."

Lawyers for the state argued that Reynolds should leave in place the ban on the commercial sale of marijuana and a rule that limits each provider to three patients, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported.

Lawmakers passed the restrictions after some business owners organized traveling clinics and the number of patients increased to 30,000, while the number of providers peaked at about 4,800.

Reynolds initially blocked four provisions in the 2011 law from taking effect, but the Montana Supreme Court overruled him in September 2012, saying the state needed to show only a "rational basis" for the new restrictions. Tuesday's arguments came after the Supreme Court returned the case to Reynolds for further review using "rational basis" as the standard.

In October 2012, Reynolds again suspended the limits on profits and patient numbers.

"You've got to give the Legislature the benefit of the doubt," assistant attorney general J. Stuart Segrest argued Tuesday. "If it's rational for them to speculate that to limit commercial sales addresses the abuses that they saw ... then that law passes a rational-basis (test)."

Reynolds said he would rule later and determine whether a trial needs to be held to settle the case.

Montana voters rejected a November 2012 ballot initiative to overturn the 2011 marijuana law and return to the initiative approved by voters in 2004.

The number of medical marijuana patients registered with the state last month was 8,300, Goetz noted. The state had 329 providers in March, according to the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

A decrease in the number of patients and providers doesn't mean the Legislature's concerns aren't valid, Segrest said, adding that lawmakers may have sought even further reductions.

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