Medical Marijuana Regulation Hits Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A proposal to regulate the medical marijuana industry with money from increased cardholder fees faced a lengthy first hearing Friday before a Legislature that will also be considering plans to repeal the medical marijuana law altogether.

Some medical marijuana advocates joined law enforcement and others in supporting the proposed compromise measure that aims to bring order to a largely unregulated industry. The bill was opposed both by staunch opponents to medical marijuana who want the law repealed, and some medical marijuana advocates who said the regulation would be too stringent.

The measure would set up a process of charging cardholders a new fee that would eventually raise millions to, in part, regulate the industry. It also requires the marijuana be grown in Montana, sets limits on possession amounts, provides for background checks for all cardholders and makes many other changes.

The proposal comes from an interim committee of lawmakers that attempted to find a compromise on the issue.

“The problems have been on the front page of all the papers, and you probably all know them well,” said Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.

Sands said the measure aims to make several improvements, by specifically stating local governments can regulate the businesses within their borders and by drawing a “bright line” for law enforcement who now struggle to determine exactly what is legal.

And it requires that doctors writing prescriptions for medical marijuana have an office in Montana, taking aim at companies that find distant doctors to hold brief interviews before offering a prescription. Two separate physicians would need to recommend the drug for those seeking it for “chronic pain,” by far the most common ailment declared by cardholders.

Some users of the drug argue the requirements are too expensive, and say it is unfair to place a tax on a medicine. The fees on the industry could raise an excess into the millions of dollars for state coffers.

“I think it’s based on fear and not fact,” said Jason Smith, a caregiver from Billings who raises the drug for cardholders. “They talk about tax revenue — this is medication. Medication is supposed to be a tax deduction, not a tax revenue.”

Lawmakers will separately consider bills to repeal the medical marijuana law that voters overwhelmingly approved in an initiative in 2004.

Staunch opponents argued medical marijuana is flooding the streets and regulation can’t fix the problem.

But supporters, a combination of advocates and local officials often at loggerheads with the industry, said they think a compromise can eventually be reached after lawmakers tinker with the bill more.

Tom Daubert, an advocate who helped draft the original initiative, said the measure will take care of the abuses seen in the state.

“I think it is doable in a near consensus kind of way,” Daubert said.

The panel also heard a bill that makes it clear the state’s indoor smoking ban applies to medical marijuana.