By Emilie Ritter
HELENA, Montana (Reuters) - A judge has blocked parts of a Montana law that would have imposed tough new restrictions on state-sanctioned medical marijuana suppliers starting on Friday.
In a preliminary injunction issued on Thursday, state District Judge James Reynolds in Helena ruled those limits would effectively deny access to pot for many patients entitled to use it under the state's 7-year-old medical marijuana statute.
Reynolds said in his 15-page ruling that he was refraining from making a judgment about whether marijuana has medical benefits, noting that issue already had been decided by Montana voters and the state Legislature.
Instead, he said provisions of the law passed earlier this year to overhaul the original voter-approved 2004 ballot measure legalizing pot for medicinal purposes went too far.
Reynolds specifically blocked provisions outlawing any profits in the supply of medical marijuana, including a ban on growers charging customers to recoup the cost of cultivation and a ban on advertising and promotion of medicinal pot.
He also barred enforcement of sections of the new law limiting cultivation to no more than three patients per supplier.
"The court is unaware of and has not been shown where any person in any other licensed and lawful industry in Montana -- be he a barber, an accountant, a lawyer or a doctor -- who, providing a legal product or service, is denied the right to charge for that service or is limited in the number of people he or she can serve," Reynolds wrote.
He added that such restrictions "will certainly limit the number of willing providers and will thereby deny the access of Montanans otherwise eligible for medical marijuana to this legal product and thereby deny these persons this fundamental right of seeking their health in a lawful manner."
A spokesman for the Montana attorney general did not return calls seeking comment.
Supporters of the new law said it was designed to close loopholes in the original 2004 statute they said are being exploited by some as a pretext for recreational pot smoking and large-scale drug trafficking.
But medical marijuana advocates who challenged the measure in court said the regulatory reform was deliberately crafted to make it unworkable, calling it a repeal attempt in disguise.
Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, vetoed an outright repeal bill sent to him by the Republican-controlled legislature in April. But the regulatory overhaul he allowed to become law without his signature.
The number of Montana residents carrying cards allowing them to lawfully possess and use pot for treatment of one ailment or another has jumped from 4,000 in 2009 to nearly 30,000 this year.
Meanwhile, medical pot-growing facilities and dispensaries, many of them operating under one roof, have swelled to more than 4,800 statewide, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
All have operated with little state control other than a quota that limits them to six plants per patient.
Although cannabis is still considered an illegal narcotic under federal law, 15 states and the District of Columbia have statutes making marijuana legal for medical purposes.
(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)