Lawmakers Make Final Changes to Marijuana Overhaul

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers are putting the finishing touches on a bill to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana industry Monday, adopting amendments that could do away with the state’s booming multi-million dollar pot industry.

The bill, carried by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, aims to overturn the state’s 2004 voter-approved drug law and replace it with a strict, law enforcement-friendly proposal that’s a far cry from the state’s current marijuana industry, which has grown to nearly 30,000 legal users.

If the overhaul measure passes, most of the businesses providing marijuana would be shut down and half or more of the patients may no longer have access to the drug.

The measure has cleared both chambers, but now lawmakers have to hash out the differences between the proposals each chamber endorsed.

Senators and representatives on the compromise committee indicated they would work off of the House’s version of the overhaul, a model that entirely removes payment from the marijuana trade and reduces the ratio of patients to providers to one, in most cases.

Consideration of Senate Bill 423 comes on the heels of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s veto of a Republican-backed medical marijuana repeal measure Wednesday. Now lawmakers are focused on the overhaul bill.

It would require marijuana providers to grow the drug free of charge and provide it to patients on compassionate grounds. Growers and patients would be limited to one ounce and could have four mature plants.

The overhaul bill has been a work in progress throughout its journey through the Legislature; it was rewritten, amended and changed at almost every stage.

If lawmakers adopt more of the 157 amendments before the compromise committee, such a tight regulation could be ready for Legislative approval and transferal to the governor by the end of the week.

Lawmakers working on the final version of the measure Monday said they had concerns about federal liability issues of having the state actively involved in the marijuana industry.

Last month, medical marijuana businesses were the target of a series of raids as part of a federal investigation into drug trafficking and tax evasion.

Legislators said they would support a system with minimal state involvement, tight regulations and easy control to try and avoid federal intervention.

The marijuana trade grew rapidly after the U.S. attorney general’s office said in 2009 that the federal government would not prosecute pot users following state laws. The current number of legal users is almost a 10-fold increase from the few thousand users who were registered with the program before 2009.

Some said the industry was spiraling beyond what voters intended. Others countered the drug was being used by patients in need where other drugs could not do the job.

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