HELENA– After months of hearing from hundreds of patients, caregivers, police and worried parents, an interim legislative committee plans to draft possible changes to the state’s medical marijuana law by August.
Lawmakers received dozens of recommendations Monday on how to improve the law passed by initiative in 2004.
The recommendations from a working group ranged from creating a regulatory board that licenses medical marijuana providers — called caregivers — to reviewing the one-year period that a patient’s medical marijuana card is valid.
Four members of the interim legislative committee will take those recommendations and craft a bill or set of bills to be considered by the full Legislature when it convenes in January.
Their goal is to shore up the law that has allowed the number of patients in the state to grow to 17,000 and the number of caregivers to reach 3,500.
Several people on the panel said the boom goes against the original intention of the law to provide compassionate care to people with the most debilitating illnesses or conditions.
Chairwoman Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said there were two ways the committee could go: Narrow the law to cut the number of patients and caregivers or refine it to allow medical marijuana to become a regulated industry.
“What did the voters think they were voting for and can we get back to those basic issues of providing limited, controlled access for people who the public thought really needed this as compassionate care?” Sands said.
One proposed change is establishing a regulatory board that oversees medical marijuana distribution, said Lewis Smith, the attorney for Powell County.
“If you’re gong to be in the business then you should be licensed, and you should wait until you are licensed before you start participating. Otherwise, in my viewpoint, you’re simply a drug dealer and we should be treating you as such,” he said.
The recommendations do not call for repealing the law. Sands said the committee would not consider that possibility because separate legislation has been proposed seeking repeal.
Some people in the audience said repeal was the only proper course.
“The initiative was never about 17,000 people in Montana wanting to self-medicate with marijuana. It was never about regulating marijuana as an industry,” said Pam Christianson, a self-described mom from Missoula. “But here we are, trying to close the floodgates on a dam that was never built.”
At the center of the debate is Jason Christ and the organization he created last year called the Montana Caregivers Network. The organization sponsors traveling clinics that bring doctors to people who might not otherwise have access to a physician willing to prescribe medical marijuana.
Christ’s clinics have been criticized as assembly lines that allow hundreds of people to sign up as patients at the expense of proper medical screenings.
Christ told lawmakers Monday that his organization has seen 16,000 patients — 3,500 in February alone — and made more than $1 million during the past year. The response has been surprising, but the goal has been to end suffering, not make money, he said.
Tom Daubert, a caregiver who helped author the medical marijuana initiative, blamed the pot boom on Christ’s organization.
“Any objective observer of what’s happened would conclude that, for all the flaws in the law, the biggest single problem has been Mr. Christ’s exploitation of its loopholes,” he said.
Sands reprimanded Daubert for the comment. Christ did not directly address the criticism but said he supports more regulation, adding his clinics have a screening process and follow the law.
Christ said his group works to teach people that marijuana is medicine, not a recreational drug.
“I run a $1 million a year company, people, and I’m high on pot,” Christ told the lawmakers. “That goes against the general perception that smoking pot makes you dumb.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.