House Makes Major Medical Marijuana Bill Changes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A House committee made sweeping changes to a Senate proposal to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana law Wednesday, tightening the measure even further and then passing it to the House floor.

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 House took Essmann’s tight regulation measure and turned it into an almost an entirely different bill, going to lengths to have the tightest control of the marijuana industry without doing away with the drug altogether.

Analysts estimate that Essmann’s bill may reduce the number of legal marijuana users from more than 28,000 to fewer than 2,000. The new overhaul likely reduces that number even more.

Republican representatives say the new regulations are the next best thing in case Gov. Brian Schweitzer doesn’t sign the bill lawmakers passed last week that would repeal the 2004 voter-approved law.

“I want it regulated down to the furthest point, this does that,” said Human Services Committee Chairman David Howard, R-Park City, a former FBI agent who has been a vocal advocate of full repeal.

The measure cleared the committee on a 12-3 vote after the bill received a hearing. The bill will now head to the House floor.

The revised overhaul drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, but reluctantly. Representatives from both parties said they thought the bill had a number of flaws, but said they were pressed to act on this major issue before it’s too late. Others opposed the measure, saying it goes too far and potentially denies the drug to Montanans who need it.

“This bill completely eliminates patients access to medical marijuana,” said Rep. Ellie Hill D-Missoula

The changes to the bill, brought by Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, would prohibit marijuana from being sold or purchased. Instead, the transfer of marijuana could only be made for free, on compassionate grounds.

Smith said his intention was to remove the business aspect from the use of marijuana entirely. Currently, the growing and selling of the drug is a multimillion dollar industry.

Medical marijuana businesses were the target of a series of raids earlier this month as part of an 18-month federal investigation into drug trafficking and tax evasion.

Removing the sale of goods from the system does away with the debate over what state agency would be the licensing authority for the sale of the drug, one of the stickiest points of contention when the bill made its way through the Senate last month.

Smith’s amendments propose limiting cannabis providers to growing the drug for only one person, or three if two of the drug users were related to the provider.

The bill would also eliminate the proposed two doctor approval system and the list of marijuana treatable conditions found in Essmann’s measure. Instead the bill now leaves the determination of treatment up to the physician.

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.

The bill is a product of a last-minute Senate effort to put together an overhaul proposal, and it’s already undergone a number of major changes while clearing the Senate. Republican leaders in both chambers see the measure as a work in progress and expect many more changes to be made.

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