Medical Marijuana Overhaul Gets Lukewarm Reception

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Legislators say a proposal to overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana law by doing away with pot businesses is the best way to control the state’s booming drug trade, but both critics and industry advocates have given the regulation plan a lukewarm reception.

Senate Bill 423, which was amended this week by a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers, would create a system where pot is free, homegrown, and strictly controlled. Lawmakers were forced to push forward the reform after the governor vetoed a GOP-favored bill repealing the voter-approved medical marijuana law last week.

The amended bill proposes a “grow-your-own” marijuana system where the drug would have to be provided for free, on compassionate grounds. It also limits provider-to-patient ratios to 1-3.

Industry advocates say the bill would deny the drug to patients who need it, while critics say the marijuana law should be repealed outright, not overhauled.

When voters approved the use of medical marijuana in 2004, the pot trade only had a few thousand patients. After the U.S. Attorney General’s office said in 2009 that the federal government wouldn’t prosecute users who follow state laws, the industry expanded quickly. Nearly 30,000 Montanans are now registered users, an almost a tenfold increase in program participants before 2009.

The growth is causing some to worry that marijuana use is sprawling beyond the levels intended by voters.

Fears were heighted last month when federal agents raided grow operations across the state, and then again Wednesday when Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana, issued a statement saying the prosecution of anyone involved in the trade of illegal drugs was a priority of federal officials.

But industry advocates say, irrespective of the federal government’s views, Montana’s reform bill goes way too far in controlling the pot trade. Advocates such as Jim Gingery of the Montana Medical Growers Association say the Legislature is overreacting to abuses and ignoring the will of voters.

“The patients today are scared to death that they won’t be able to get their medicine, they won’t know who to get it from,” Gingery said, adding that providers may be unable to afford the cost of operating a grow operation free of charge.

Legislators “have clearly misread the state of Montana and its support for medical cannabis,” he said.

Safe Communities Safe Kids, an organization against medical marijuana, was critical of the reform for an entirely different reason. The group and others like it favor a total repeal and see any marijuana law as unable to be enforced. To them, the proposed overhaul is a failure to eradicate a serious problem in the state.

For pot advocates seeking expansive use of the drug, “whenever you have a marijuana law, it doesn’t matter how tight it is, it’s going to give them a foot in the door,” said the group’s Cherrie Brady. But she acknowledged that any bill that seeks tight regulation of the industry was a step in the right direction.

The proposed reform was supported by state law enforcement groups, who have complained that the current law is too ambiguous, leaving them hamstrung to police the marijuana industry. The overhaul would increase local government authority and allow police keep tabs on who is growing and using the drug.

“Law enforcement will have a better idea of what’s legal and what’s not, and that was our objective,” said law enforcement advocate Jim Smith.

The measure will likely come before the state Senate and House chambers for final approval next week. If it passes, the measure would head to the governor’s desk. Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Wednesday he was skeptical of the “grow-your-own” system and suggested he would make changes to the measure.

Small changes will be made to the proposal after negotiations with Schweitzer, said House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade.

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