House Leader Rules Out Medical Marijuana Stalemate

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state House speaker said Thursday he was confident there will be no legislative stalemate on medical marijuana this session, even though the two remaining proposals to repeal or reform the law both face high hurdles with time running down.

The Senate late Thursday endorsed in a 29-21 vote the House’s full repeal measure and readied to send it back to the other chamber — finally giving House Speaker Mike Milburn the proposal he wants made into law.

That move came after senators struggled Wednesday to advance a plan for tight regulations, a measure that is now severely wounded.

That puts Milburn back in the driver’s seat on an issue that has been a priority for him.

A majority of senators did approve the reform bill in two different votes — but they failed Wednesday to muster the two-thirds majority required to transmit the bill to the House in time to meet a procedural deadline.

For the House to now take up the reform bill, two-thirds of its members must vote to accept the late transmittal — no certainty in a chamber where leaders favor outright repeal.

But while the repeal measure appears to be on a fast track out of the Legislature, GOP leaders worry that Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, would veto the measure when it gets to his desk.

Democrats on the Senate floor who opposed the repeal measure leaving that chamber, indicated Thursday they think it is a near certainty Schweitzer will reject it.

Milburn said he will make sure something gets done this session on the thorny issue. He said all sides will work hard to make sure the proposals don’t all collapse in the Legislature’s final 18 days.

He promised the overhaul proposal would get a look, although the repeal proposal will get top billing when both are sent back over to the House. And waiting in the wings is a proposal that has already cleared the House, and is still alive in the Senate, to send the question of repeal to the voters in 2012 — which would not need the governor’s signature.

“I believe full repeal is the true answer given the situation we are in,” said Milburn, a former Air Force pilot and rancher from Cascade.

Questions about the booming medical marijuana industry gripped Montana even before federal agents raided pot growers around the state earlier this month.

Montanans overwhelmingly voted to allow medical marijuana for the very sick in 2004. The number of people who got a state card to smoke pot grew slowly at first, until a 2009 federal memo saying the Justice Department wouldn’t prosecute patients who follow state law.

Now with more than 28,000 registered users in a state of less than a million people there are about three times as many state-sanctioned marijuana smokers as ranch owners and roughly one of out every 19 households has a card.

One senator, urging fellow Republicans in a caucus meeting to advance the House Bill 161 regulation bill, agreed it should get top billing as the Senate Bill 423 reform measure waits on the side and laid out a strategy to force the governor’s hand on the issue.

“I think we need to send that one and put it on the governor’s desk and let him veto it, then we always have Senate Bill 423 to fall back on,” said Sen. John Brenden, a rancher from Scobey.

Plenty of Republicans in the Senate would like to see the medical marijuana law repealed, and were only working on the alternate strict reform proposal to appease a few in their caucus who believe the drug can help those really in need.

“I don’t believe it can be reformed, it needs to be repealed,” said Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings. “There are times the voters get it wrong, and that is what happened in 2004.”

Others argued that repealing the measure is still wrong, given that it does help some really sick people just as the voters planned.

“It is more than what the people voted for, but we do still have what the people voted for,” said Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Caldwell. “To take it away from them who need it is very cruel and very immoral.”

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