Medical Marijuana Overhaul Hits Roadblock

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Efforts to reform Montana’s wild medical marijuana scene — the target of recent federal raids — fell apart late Wednesday as a bill to regulate the industry teetered on the brink of collapse and focus shifted to repealing the voter-approved initiative.

Partisan wrangling over the touchy issue of repeal escalated as the day progressed, leaving the fate of a last-minute overhaul plan in jeopardy.

Twice on Wednesday night the embattled overhaul failed by just a couple votes to get a two-thirds majority, the margin needed in the Senate to clear a late transmittal deadline. Lawmakers were up against the deadline after deciding to cobble together a whole new reform proposal at the last minute.

It is possible the measure could still advance — but House leaders bent on repealing the law would have to agree to bend their rules to accept the reform bill. House Republican leaders would not commit to doing so.

Republican senators instead quickly scheduled a Thursday floor vote for the House’s repeal bill.

Meanwhile, sparring between Republicans and Democrats intensified. Gov. Brian Schweitzer called the reform proposal “kook-istan” and the result of Republicans “shooting on the fly” to create overhaul legislation that needs much more attention to detail. Republicans accused Democrats who were meeting behind locked doors of trying to use the issue as a bargaining chip on other matters.

Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams of Missoula said Democrats needed the reform measure loosened to get their full support. Republicans refused several efforts early in the day from Democrats to amend the bill. Democrats argued the reform plan was far too restrictive and would prevent legitimate patients from getting the drug.

“I am not going to be held hostage by the far right,” Williams said. “They are going to learn just because they have the majority doesn’t mean they always get their way. They do have to cooperate with us.”

Williams said she doesn’t think the governor will sign a bill to repeal medical marijuana. Schweitzer has been cool toward the idea of repeal but hasn’t specified what he would do.

The House has advanced a backup plan to ask voters in 2012 to repeal the law, an initiative that does not need the governor’s signature.

The medical marijuana bill occupied the Senate’s attention most of the day.

Lawmakers shuffled the proposed regulatory authority for the drug from the Public Service Commission to the Department of Agriculture and finally to the Department of Labor and Industry. Senators said there was a good chance the department charged with regulation could be changed yet again, if the measure is resuscitated.

The proposed overhaul would overturn the 2004 voter-approved medical marijuana law and replace it with much more stringent regulations for prescribing pot to patients. It would severely reduce the availability of the drug to Montanans — by some estimates reducing legal marijuana users from more than 28,000 to fewer than 2,000.

The bill likely will get a final Senate vote Thursday, which would require a simple majority. Then it would be up to a House dominated by Republicans enthusiastic about repeal to accept the measure with a two-thirds vote of their own.

House leaders have already spurned one overhaul proposal. They never advanced a regulation bill that was two years in the making and initially had the blessing of both law enforcement and the medical marijuana industry.

Medical marijuana was overwhelmingly approved by Montana voters and remained a mostly small, homegrown operation until two years ago, when an explosion of cardholders and high-profile businesses prompted worries in communities across the state.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers entered the session promising to do something about the industry.

But their ongoing quarreling elevates the prospect of deadlock and inaction — raising the specter that the medical marijuana industry could continue to grow with few regulations, even though leaders from both parties have said the status quo is unacceptable.

Adding to the uncertainty is a series of raids on medical marijuana businesses earlier this month as part of an 18-month federal investigation into drug trafficking and tax evasion. No charges have been filed, but federal and state authorities executed 26 search warrants and four civil-seizure warrants across the state

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