House, Senate OK Marijuana Bill in Initial Votes

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The state House and Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would overhaul Montana’s medical marijuana industry — spelling the likely demise of the state’s multimillion-dollar pot industry.

The measure negotiated by a conference committee appears to be on track for passage after Tuesday’s 34-16 vote in the Senate and 72-28 vote in the House. If it passes a final vote, Senate Bill 423 will then head to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s desk.

Schweitzer hasn’t indicated whether he would sign or veto the overhaul measure, but has suggested something could be done to control the marijuana industry. In a budget deal with Republican leaders reached Friday, Schweitzer added funds to the state budget for medical marijuana contingent on the passage of the overhaul bill.

The measure carried by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, aims to do away with the state’s profitable marijuana industry and replace it with a grow-your-own system. Under the bill, the drug would be given to patients free of charge on compassionate grounds and it would limit a provider to three patients. There is no limit now.

The proposal would likely lead to a significant reduction of the state’s overall users, which was nearly 30,000 people at the end of March.

Schweitzer already has vetoed the Republican-backed plan to repeal medical marijuana use in the state, saying it went against the will of the voters who approved the law in 2004 to help seriously ill Montanans.

Montana’s number of marijuana users has grown by nearly 10 times since 2009. The growth has some worried that the large marijuana use will attract federal action against the drug the U.S. government deems addictive, dangerous and illegal.

Several medical marijuana businesses were the target of federal raids last month, and a letter from U.S. Attorney for Montana Michael Cotter issued last week said the prosecution of businesses that sell marijuana is a core priority of the Department of Justice.

But lawmakers disagree on the best way to control such a growth industry.

Supporters say the overhaul bill reins in massive marijuana grow operations that are endangering the state’s public safety by attracting gang activity and youth use.

Opponents say the proposed system is too restrictive, would deny the drug to patients in need and may force both buyers and sellers to dealing on the black market.

During the debate of the issue Tuesday, many supporters said the bill was a compromise measure to significantly reduce the pot industry without doing away with it entirely, many Republican lawmakers’ preference.

“If we let this go any longer we will have 50-, 60-, 70,000 people on it,” said Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, about the fast growth rate of marijuana users.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, agreed, saying the bill was a necessary harness on an out of control industry, acknowledging opponents’ criticisms of how strict the measure could be.

“Are people not going to get treatment that need it? Yes. But on the other hand people who shouldn’t be using it aren’t going to get it,” Shockley said.

Opponents of the bill took issue with the feasibility of the proposed system that requires goods to be grown and transferred to consumers for free. A number of lawmakers said the drug trade would be driven to the black market or leave the elderly without a provider to turn to.

“In the final analysis, I don’t think this is an open enough system to really help the people that I think are out there who really, truly are benefiting from medical marijuana,” said Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula.

Sen. Mary Caffero, D-Helena, said the bill rules on producing marijuana products and powers given to law enforcement were “disconnected from reality” and the bill was “riddled with absurd provisions” that could put patients at risk.

“This bill is aimed at making it less legitimate, less safe and therefore less quality,” said Caffero.

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