HELENA, Mont (Reuters) - Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have repealed the state's 7-year-old, voter-approved law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Schweitzer's veto came as state lawmakers continued work on an alternative bill to tighten regulation of medical marijuana in the state, where 30,000 residents carry cards allowing them to lawfully use marijuana as treatment for one ailment or another.
Critics of the law, approved as a ballot measure by voters in 2004, say the statute has been abused by some as a pretext for recreational pot smoking and even for illegal drug trade.
"The good intentions of Montana voters has been made a mockery by the system that's grown up in this state in the last year and a half," said state Senator Jeff Essmann, a chief sponsor of the regulation bill.
Last month, federal agents raided marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in 13 cities across Montana in a crackdown that federal prosecutors said was aimed at supposed medical pot suppliers who were engaged in large-scale drug trafficking.
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 reasons, mostly in the West, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
In a shift from the Bush administration's position on the subject, the administration of President Barack Obama said in October 2009 it would no longer prosecute patients who use medical marijuana, or dispensaries that distribute it, in states where marijuana has been approved for such purposes.
But the number of pot growers and storefront clinics has sprouted since then. And Justice Department officials say federal law enforcement will continue raids on illegal drug distribution operations wherever they are found.
(Reporting by Emilie Ritter in Helena; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune)