HELENA, Mont (Reuters) - Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have repealed the state's seven-year-old, voter-approved law legalizing marijuana for medical purposes.
Critics of the broadly written law, approved as a ballot measure by 62 percent of voters in 2004, say the statute has been used by some as a pretext for recreational pot smoking and even for illegal drug trade.
The supply chain of pot-growing facilities and storefront dispensaries allowed under Montana's medical marijuana statute is little regulated and has expanded rapidly during the past couple of years.
Meanwhile, the number of residents carrying cards allowing them to lawfully use pot as treatment for one ailment or another has jumped from about 1,000 to nearly 30,000.
Last month, federal agents raided marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in 13 cities across Montana in a crackdown federal prosecutors said was aimed at supposed medical pot suppliers who were engaged in large-scale drug trafficking.
Schweitzer, a Democrat serving his second term as governor, said he supported moves in the legislature to tighten regulations under the law but was loathe to override the will of the voters.
"I do not believe it is right that 91 legislators overturn the will of the people of Montana, who passed this citizen initiative in 2004 by this significant margin," he said in his veto message.
Supporters of repeal are not seen as unlikely to muster the two-thirds vote that would be required in both houses of the Republican-controlled Legislature to override the veto.
But Mike Milburn, speaker of the state House of Representatives and a chief sponsor of the repeal bill, called the veto "disappointing" and said Schweitzer "wasn't in tune with what Montana wants."
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 and Jerry Norton)