Medical Marijuana Overhaul Bill Gets First Hearing

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A new plan to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana law needs to be improved for it to be a workable plan, both supporters and opponents of the bill said Friday.

Senate Bill 423 would overturn the state’s current law and replace it with tighter, law enforcement-friendly regulation.

The sponsor, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, said the measure could reduce the number of legal marijuana users from more than 28,000 to about 2,000.

Friday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that even its supporters see it as a work in progress.

Skeptics pointed to provisions for a system of certified couriers to transfer marijuana from growers to patients and another making the Montana Public Service Commission the regulatory authority.

The unusual step of proposing to use the commission that regulates utilities as the licensing authority for marijuana drew the head of the commission to testify against the measure.

Bill Gallagher said his agency already has a full plate of duties.

“Adding the role of state licensing authority contemplated in this bill would distract the agency from its core mission,” he said.

Essmann said it’s unlikely any state department would want to take up the task of regulating marijuana, but the commission is the best fit because of how it currently supervises the transfer of goods.

Critics also said a system of marijuana couriers — who would notify law enforcement before transporting the drug — might look good on paper, but would be difficult to implement in the real world.

Republican leadership in the House has already made clear it does not support the measure as it is proposed currently, making it likely the overhaul will be changed significantly if it’s going to be the final action the Legislature takes on marijuana.

Supporters at the hearing said the bill is a good first step to limit marijuana use only to legitimate patients.

Rep. Diane Sands, who chaired an interim legislative committee that crafted its own overhaul bill, said she supported the measure. Sands said the bill included many of the same ideas that her committee included in House Bill 68.

“I think the provision in this bill removing cash from the industry is extremely important. Make it accountable, transparent, trackable and regulated,” the Missoula Democrat said.

Some from the marijuana industry supported the measure, but with reservations.

“However flawed this bill may be, if it will allow just a handful of patients to live better lives than otherwise, it will have my support,” said Tom Daubert from Patients and Families United.

Opponents of the measure came from the marijuana industry, along with those who support the law’s total repeal. The marijuana growers and users said the bill would be too limiting to patients while the repeal advocates said the drug cannot be regulated effectively.

House Speaker Mike Milburn’s bill to repeal the state’s medical marijuana law has passed the House but stalled in the Senate. The Cascade Republican and other GOP House leaders say they still favor repeal and any type of regulation measure would have to be much more restrictive to get their support.

Organizations strongly for repeal, including Safe Community, Safe Kids, said they could not back the regulation measure and asked lawmakers to consider repeal.

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