HELENA – The House backed a Senate proposal to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana law Monday after the chamber made major changes to the measure.
Senate Bill 423 carried by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, is aimed at significantly reducing the marijuana industry in the state that many lawmakers think is out of control. The measure was supported on a bipartisan 77-23 vote.
The bill had a tumultuous passage through both chambers; it was introduced at the last minute, the target of partisan wrangling and has been heavily rewritten several times. It is likely the measure will change even more before it could reach the governor’s desk.
The House’s version of the bill is significantly different from the Senate’s. It requires growers to provide medical marijuana at no cost and restricts the number of patients a provider can grow for to one, or up to three people if two of the patients are relatives to the grower.
Analysts estimate that Essmann’s original measure would reduce the number of marijuana card holders from over 28,000 to under 2,000. The revised overhaul likely will decrease that number even more.
Supporters of the measure in the House said the bill returns the marijuana industry to how the voters intended it when they supported the drug law in 2004. They said it reduces cardholders to just those who really need cannabis by taking the profit out of the industry.
Opponents said it is far too strict and would deny access to the drug to people who need it.
House Republican leaders have long advocated for outright repeal of the state’s medical marijuana law, saying the drug is drawing crime to the state and endangering the public.
An outright repeal bill backed by Republicans was sent to the governor’s desk last week.
Some Republicans said the overhaul measure is as close to repeal as possible and is the best alternative in case Gov. Brian Schweitzer doesn’t sign the proposed repeal.
Schweitzer has been cool toward the idea of repeal but hasn’t said what he would do with the measure to overhaul medical marijuana guidelines.
Critics of the overhaul said Monday that the bill is just another form of repeal.
“This bill is not responsible regulation, this bill is the opposite of responsible regulation,” said Rep. Pat Noonan, D-Ramsay. “This bill is mass repeal. This bill is repeal in sheep’s clothing.”
Some Republican critics said the chamber shouldn’t compromise on the issue just because of a possible veto.
Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby, said the bill would be a boon for criminal enterprise.
“My guess is if the cartel men, whoever they are, are sitting in their fancy apartments in Florida watching this, they’re probably celebrating and talking about: ‘Let’s make a trip or two to the bank,'” Harris said.
“What you’re doing here is putting a Band-Aid on somebody who just had their arm cut off, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
The bill has long been regarded as a work in progress and lawmakers expect the measure to change even more when it is sent to a committee of senators and representatives to resolve the differences between the two chambers overhaul proposals.
The Senate endorsed a version of the proposal that would make a state department the licensing authority of marijuana and would set up small nonprofits to grow the drug.
Also Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee stopped a referendum to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law. The measure was originally billed by Republican leaders as a last ditch effort in case no measures moved forward.
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