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Both Sides Talk About Changes to Montana’s Medical Marijuana Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Medical marijuana advocates and opponents worked Wednesday to reach an agreement on fixing a law that has come under heavy scrutiny — even as a new initiative was in the works to repeal the measure altogether.

A ballot initiative proposed a day earlier would ask voters to undo their 2004 decision legalizing medical marijuana. But it faces a strict mid-June deadline to qualify for the ballot by clearing legal review and completing the arduous task of gathering thousands of signatures in a short period of time.

The medical marijuana law has become one of the hottest topics facing lawmakers as the state deals with an explosion in the number of medical marijuana patients, caregivers and growers. Local governments, prosecutors and others say the widespread growth is far outpacing what voters originally envisioned.

Even the advocates behind the original initiative say the rapid development of new businesses to distribute marijuana goes beyond what they envisioned.

A person must have a debilitating medical condition certified by a doctor to register as a medical marijuana patient with the state. Montana now has close to 15,000 registered patients — a fivefold growth in just one year thanks in large part to traveling clinics that sign up hundreds of new patients at a time.

Those clinics landed one doctor in hot water with the Board of Medical Examiners this week, which issued a stern warning to doctors who participate in the “cannabis caravans.”

That was just the latest in a string of headlines showing an increased interest in bringing order to the industry.

At a meeting Wednesday, both sides started work on framing the issue and began looking at suggestions for altering the law. No firm agreement was reached on a proposal that would ultimately go to a legislative interim committee that would then finalize its own plan for submission to the 2011 Legislature.

Prosecutors suggested more oversight is needed. They said there is no way to make sure people are growing and distributing the marijuana legally, and feel much of the medical marijuana is being resold on the black market.

More stringent registration and tracking mechanisms were proposed as a way to make sure growers, the caregivers who sell the product for as much as $400 an ounce or more and patients all follow the law. Advocates say they are open to making the current law work better.

“I did not envision thousands off caregivers, with some trying to acquire as many patients as possible for financial reasons,” Tom Daubert, founder and director of Patients and Families United, said at the meeting.

The advocates said the medical marijuana network provides a vital service, and pointed out there are redistribution and misuse issues with drugs like prescription narcotics that are strictly controlled.

The ballot initiative aims to undo it all.

“The Medical Marijuana Act passed by citizen initiative in 2004 election was misrepresented to the people of the State of Montana,” the proposal submitted to election officials reads. “The societal problems that are being created by the implementation of the Medical Marijuana law are not acceptable.”

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