Montana Marijuana Overhaul Begins Taking Shape

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A new option to do away with the state’s marijuana law and replace it with a new one is taking shape in the Legislature after a proposal to repeal the law stalled in the Senate and lawmakers said they don’t think overhauling the current law would go far enough.

Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, is leading a subcommittee to try and quickly cobble together a proposal before the legislative session ends. Essmann said Monday he is laying out a plan to replace the current medical marijuana law with a new law-enforcement-friendly measure.

Most lawmakers say something needs to be done to harness Montana’s medical marijuana industry, which many say has sprawled beyond the intent of the 2004 voter approved initiative. Many fear the marijuana law is harming public safety and endangering youth because it can’t be adequately regulated as pot shops proliferate, federal officials raid growers, and the number of medical marijuana card holders increases to more than 28,000.

The solution has divided the two chambers of the Legislature. The House passed a repeal of the marijuana law last month on a 62-37 vote, but the measure stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee where a number of senators say marijuana is an irreplaceable drug for those in serious pain.

The Judiciary Committee is now searching for a suitable overhaul.

Several proposals to better control of the marijuana industry are before the Legislature, including House Bill 68, the work of extensive pre-session committee work. But despite the various reform measures in both chambers, leaders of the Senate say no single bill adequately does the job and a blend of all the measures is needed to overhaul the medical marijuana law sufficiently.

Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, who is on the subcommittee formulating the measure, said because of the far-reaching changes being proposed, the subcommittee’s measure is being planned as an entirely separate law.

Ideas being discussed in the subcommittee include prohibiting pot shops, tighter control of who can get a marijuana card by eliminating some qualifying medical conditions, and creating a new regulatory authority over the marijuana industry. The plans being discussed would significantly reduce the number of marijuana cardholders and make it easier to police who can legally have the drug.

Jim Smith, a representative of law enforcement agencies, said the subcommittee’s plan is shaping up to be a law-enforcement-friendly proposal because it would create a manageable number of marijuana growers.

It’s uncertain what type of support this new and still-developing approach may have with legislators.

Some critics of the medical marijuana industry say the drug will have permanent negative impacts on the state no matter how it’s regulated and still hold out hope for an outright repeal.

Yet party leaders have said it’s doubtful there will be a deadlock over what action to take, and most lawmakers see the status quo as unacceptable.

Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, said he and House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, who is carrying the bill to repeal the law, frequently discuss the issue.

Peterson said he envisions the Senate sending the House some sort of bill that regulates the industry, which will then launch negotiations over the final solution.

The Legislature must choose one or the other, Peterson said.

“I think in the end something will be done,” he said. “I don’t see that kicking the can down the road is an option here.”

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