Senate’s Medical Marijuana Overhaul in Jeopardy

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – An attempt to tighten medical marijuana laws was in jeopardy Tuesday after wrangling over the controversial issue forced the state Senate up against a procedural deadline.

Lawmakers eventually passed on consideration of Senate Bill 423 because it lacked a financial estimate.

The delay pushed the bill beyond a deadline to clear the chamber with a simple majority. It would now require a two-thirds vote to pass the Senate.

Most lawmakers see current medical marijuana laws as too permissive and have advocated for either overhaul of the statutes or repeal.

Senate Bill 423, carried by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann of Billings, would dramatically reduce the availability of the drug to Montanans. The measure overturns the 2004 voter-approved law and toughens regulations for doctors to prescribe pot to patients.

Essmann says his measure could reduce legal marijuana users from more than 28,000 to less than 2,000.

The measure was being billed as law enforcement friendly and strict. It attempts to do away with pot shops, remove profitability from the marijuana trade and require police notification before cannabis is transferred from a grower to a patient.

Some repeal advocates have made it clear they won’t support any type of overhaul. The Senate measure also is losing the support of some Democrats who say it is poorly put together and overly restrictive.

Democratic Sen. Mary Caferro of Helena said the overhaul measure has lost her support because it goes beyond regulating the industry and instead blocks legitimate patients from using the drug.

Caferro and a few other Democrats have said they think no good overhaul measure has a chance of passing the Legislature, so they may endorse posing the question of repeal to voters instead.

“Repeal on the ballot I don’t think is a bad thing,” said Caferro, who thinks voters would reject overturning the law.

A Senate subcommittee has tried to craft a last-minute compromise in the past few weeks while dealing with House Republican leaders who have strongly endorsed repeal.

The measure is set for more consideration Wednesday, when Senators expect the financial estimate to be available.

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