Committee Expected to Approve Medical Pot Overhaul

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A legislative committee on Monday finalized details of a planned overhaul of the state’s medical marijuana law, setting up a final vote to send the proposals to the 2011 Legislature.

The panel did little tinkering with a slate of proposals that has taken months to develop with the help of the medical marijuana industry, law enforcement and local officials. The Children, Families, Health and Human Services interim committee is expected to approve the overhaul at a scheduled Tuesday vote.

Medical marijuana business owners and advocates say the measure goes too far by requiring two doctors to issue a prescription for the most common ailment — chronic pain — held by those getting a card, and banning traveling doctors from writing mass prescriptions.

Through the end of July, about 23,500 Montanans had medical marijuana cards — up from just a few thousand last year when the Obama administration announced it would not prosecute medical marijuana users. The big increase has prompted concern in many communities around the state, which on their own have started banning businesses that sell medical marijuana.

The legislative proposals, in general, would make it much harder to get a medical marijuana card, would clarify the list of eligible diseases, and would make it easier for authorities to track and regulate the industry.

Among other things, the new rules would:

— Ban driving under the influence of medical marijuana.

— Create more stringent qualifications for those who go into business either growing or selling medical marijuana.

— Clarify that the state’s indoor smoking ban applies to medical marijuana.

— Allow for the revocation of cards.

— Put the licensing of growers and sellers under the Department of Revenue.

Medical marijuana advocates argued the proposals treat medical marijuana more harshly than prescription pain killers that can be deadly in overdose situations.

“No one has ever died from marijuana,” said Chuck Campbell, who runs a business called Montana Buds. “I urge you to slow down this process a little bit.”

The medical marijuana industry said lawmakers were ruining a law voters overwhelmingly approved in an initiative in 2004.

But legislators said voters never foresaw what is taking place today, and some suspect the law is being abused.

“I do a lot of door-to-door,” said state Sen. Roy Brown, R-Billings. “When I talk to my constituents — even those who voted for it — they say, ‘This is not what I voted for.'”

Brown said he would like to again put the question to voters and ask if they still want the medical marijuana law now that they’ve seen it in action.

Committee members pointed out that the full Legislature will see far more proposals than just their committee bill.

Some lawmakers are likely to seek full repeal of the medical marijuana law, while others could ask to simply make marijuana legal for adults as long as it is taxed, said Rep. Diane Sands, a Missoula Democrat leading the committee.

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