UPDATED: House Takes Up Medical Marijuana Overhaul

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state House is taking up a Senate proposal to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana law Wednesday while a separate bill to outright repeal the law is on its way to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 423, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, aims to reduce the number of medical marijuana users and sellers in the booming industry. The measure would strike the 2004 voter-approved law and replace it with a tighter, law enforcement-friendly system.

Most lawmakers say something needs to be done to harness Montana’s quickly growing medical marijuana industry, which many say has sprawled beyond the intent of the voter initiative.

Supporters of Essmann’s measure are quick to highlight how strict the bill is. It attempts to do away with pot shops and remove profitability from the marijuana trade, elements of the marijuana industry that have drawn public concern.

The overhaul would also require current marijuana card holders and new applicants to go through a longer and more rigorous process, consulting several doctors before they could become legal users of the drug. Analysts say the proposed overhaul may reduce the number of legal users from more than 28,000 to fewer than 2,000.

The overhaul measure is to go before the House Human Services Committee Wednesday. The committee is chaired by former FBI agent David Howard, R-Park City, who has strongly supported a full repeal, saying the marijuana industry is a criminal risk, giving gangs and cartels free reign in the state.

The bill is a product of a last-minute Senate effort to put together an overhaul proposal, and it’s already undergone major changes while clearing the Senate. Essmann, other lawmakers and bill supporters see the measure as a work in progress and expect many more changes now that the measure is in the House.

Some of the strongest advocates of repeal are in the House, and Republican leaders in the chamber have made it clear that they are skeptical of attempting to regulate the marijuana industry. But Republicans say they plan to work on crafting a regulation measure in case the governor vetoes their favored repeal proposal.

“If the governor won’t do what’s right and we have to ratchet it down, we have to ratchet it down as tight as possible,” Howard said.

Essmann’s measure had an embattled passage through the Senate chamber, with Democrats using the bill as flash point to make a statement about being excluded from the political process. Many Democrats said the measure was hastily put together and goes too far, possibly keeping the drug from people who need it.

Democratic senators withheld their votes on the measure, forcing the House to suspend their rules to keep the measure alive. The House voted 100-0 to do so.

The repeal measure, House Bill 161, was resurrected in the Senate and passed last week by a mostly Republican vote after most Democrats voted against the regulation measure.

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