Future of Medical Marijuana Bills Uncertain

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – As Montanans flooded the Capitol Friday to again testify on a proposed repeal of medical marijuana, lawmakers were as uncertain as ever on the fate of Legislative action on the law.

A general sentiment prevails in the Legislature that something must be done to reel in a medical marijuana industry that many say has spiraled beyond the intent of the law approved in a 2004 voter initiative. An abundance of pot shops, drug use among youth and police concern over organized crime has many legislators worried that the state’s rugged big sky reputation is being replaced by a blooming pot industry.

Three medical marijuana options are now poised before lawmakers: Outright repeal, a proposition viewed with skepticism by some lawmakers who say there is a legitimate need for some patients to use marijuana. Reform and regulation, a difficult task given the scope of the marijuana industry and uncertainty of how to fine tune legislation. Inaction, an option favored by few but a looming possibility given the difficulty of following through on the other two actions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is most likely where the face of legislative action on medical marijuana will reveal itself. Many House or Senate bills dealing with medical marijuana must eventually pass through the 12 person body that seems to be closely divided between supporters of repeal and reform.

Committee Chairperson Sen. Terry Murphy said he favors a reform of the initiative because of what he said is a medical need for the drug that can’t be filled by anything else.

A number of measures for reform have survived through the first half of the legislative session. Several bills propose making it more difficult for minors to access marijuana, adding fees for marijuana card holders and increasing local authority over marijuana use.

Although Murphy wants reform, he said he see few workable reform bills in front of the Legislature currently.

“None of the bills I’ve seen individually seem to do the whole job that we would like to do, they are either overregulating or not covering every area that needs to be covered,” said the Cardwell Republican.

Murphy said he would want to see his committee pull together a reform measure that incorporates the best of all the regulation measures in the legislature.

The question is whether amending and resurrecting such a Frankenstein-like blend is a feasible option to get through both chambers.

Sen. Jim Shockley sympathized with Murphy’s position on medical marijuana reform but said he now doesn’t see it as a viable measure.

“At this point we are not going to get a bill that is tight enough to satisfy me, and if we did we wouldn’t get it through the House,” said the Victor Republican who initially supported reform.

“The choice right now is to either repeal it or do what we’ve got now and what we’ve got now is not going to work,” Shockley said.

The most probable measure for repeal is Republican House Speaker Mike Milburn’s proposal that drew state officials, doctors, patients and teachers to line up for hours Friday to speak for a minute or two on his full repeal of medical marijuana bill.

Milburn said the ballot initiative that created the medical marijuana program “tugged on voters heart strings but it failed on almost all accounts.”

The Cascade Representative and supporters of the measure say the medical marijuana industry is bringing dangerous organized crime to Montana and addicting the state’s youth on the drug. They say the law is beyond reform.

Opponents speaking Friday said the concerns that marijuana is hurting the rest of society is exaggerated and the use of marijuana is the only way some people can live a normal life. Many opponents wore buttons encouraging legislators to “fix it, don’t nix it.”

“Medical marijuana is the only medication on this planet that will help me,” said Daniel Decker, 39, who suffers from chronic pain. “The fact that I use this medication has nothing to do with other people.”

The measure cleared the House handily last month on a 62-37 vote. It now faces the Senate committee vote and several more Senate votes before it could go to the governor to sign. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has not made clear how he would act on a medical marijuana repeal.

A looming specter over all of the legislation and debate around medical marijuana is indecision. If a repeal is viewed as too harsh, if reform is unworkable or a veto comes from the governor’s office, the status quo could stand for another two years.

Chairman Murphy said few lawmakers see that as acceptable

“If we do nothing we have the same situation for two more years and many, many thousands more of the (medical marijuana) cards out,” he said.

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