Senate panel passes medical marijuana overhaul that repeals current law

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday approved a bill that will repeal Montana’s current medical marijuana law and replace it with a much stricter regulatory system designed to drastically reduce the number of cardholders and squeeze the profits out of the industry.

Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, cleared the committee by a 10-2 vote after some major amendments, including the repeal language, and will be heard by the full Senate on Monday. The current law would be repealed July 1, with the bill setting up a transition schedule.

The 49-page bill, written in less than a week by a three-member subcommittee, is on the legislative fast track, at least in the Senate. It received mixed reviews in a hearing earlier Friday.

Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, who voted against the bill, said, “I think we’ve gone way too fast on this thing.”

Also opposing the bill was Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, who favors a repeal.

But Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said, “I think this bill moves us in the right direction. The number of cardholders is going to diminish dramatically. We need to do something about medical marijuana. The people of Montana want us to regulate it.”

He said he fears if this bill fails to pass, voters will repeal the 2004 voter-passed law, depriving those people who need medical marijuana of access to the product.

Critics say the industry has reeled out of control since the fall of 2009, with thousands of people, including many in their 20s, and needs to be reined in.

Defenders of the law have criticized lawmakers for repealing a law that 62 percent of the voters passed in 2004. Some people have testified that medical marijuana has helped treat a variety of maladies far better than narcotics prescribed by doctors and without the side effects.

From the start of the subcommittee work, Essmann made it clear his goal is to reduce the number of people with cards authorizing them to use medical marijuana from the current 28,300 people to no more than 2,000 by making it harder for people to get cards for severe and chronic pain. Some legislators believe that is where the current law is being abused the most.

To obtain a card for severe and chronic pain, patients would be required to have an established professional relationship with a primary care physician that includes at least four visits in six months. A doctor who is a pain management specialist would have to review the patients’ records and concur.

It would ban storefront medical marijuana dispensaries and any forms of advertising or promotions for the product. It also seeks to squeeze any profits out of the system by requiring those growing the marijuana to sell it for what amounts to a cost basis or nonprofit basis only.

People authorized could grow their own restricted supply of marijuana or use a volunteer assistant. For those living in apartments, nursing homes or hospices who are forbidden to grow their own medical pot, they could obtain it from a nonprofit grower and have it delivered by a licensed courier, who would have to notify law enforcement officials prior to making deliveries.

It would make the Montana Public Service Commission the licensing agency under HB423.

However, PSC Chairman Bill Gallagher, R-Helena, testified earlier in the day that the commission, which regulates utilities and transportation companies, voted 5-0 to oppose being assigned as the licensing and regulatory agency for medical marijuana. The PSC already has “a full plate of important utility cases,” he said.

“This is not a job anyone wants to take on,” Essmann said.

If HB423 passes the Senate, it could face a serious challenge in the House, where Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, favors repeal, not regulation.

At the hearing earlier in the day, Essmann told the committee, “The overarching goal of this bill is to repeal a system that is obviously broken, cleanse the system out and then restore the laws of the state of Montana in a fashion that will recognize the intent of Montana voters in 2004, while removing the air of legitimacy that the dispensaries intended to invoke.”

His bill would excise the term “medical marijuana” from state laws and replace it with “therapeutic marijuana.”

At the hearing, representatives of Attorney General Steve Bullock and associations representing county attorneys, sheriffs, police chiefs, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, physicians and businesses generally endorsed the bill, or in some cases wanted some changes.

Among the qualified supporters was Tom Daubert, an author of the 2004 initiative, who called it flawed and hastily written but added, “If it will allow just a handful of patients to live better than otherwise, it will have my support.”

Opponents included representatives of Safe Community, Safe Kids, a statewide group based in Billings that favors repealing the law altogether.

“We cannot support a middle ground,” said the group’s Susan Smith of Billings. “We are for repeal.”

Other opponents included medical marijuana patients like Barb Trego.

“I’m afraid this bill would cause the black market to flourish,” she said. “It would double the price and bring organized crime back in.”

She added that this bill is nothing but “50 pages of wasted ink and wasted paper.”

In other news Friday, the House Human Services Committee tabled House Bill 429, by Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup. At one time, it was thought to be a major tool for the Legislature to use to crack down on medical marijuana.

via : Independant Record

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