Senators made mostly small changes to a planned overhaul of the state's medical marijuana law late Friday after getting an earful from both those who favor medical marijuana and those who want it abolished altogether.
The Senate plan to drastically reduce the availability of medical marijuana in the state now heads to a full floor vote next week after a committee overwhelmingly endorsed it. Meanwhile, House Republican leaders, who are much more hostile to the state's medical marijuana industry, prepared to vote Saturday on a ballot measure that would repeal the law.
Senate Bill 423 would overturn the state's current law and replace it with a stricter regulation. The sponsor, Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, said the measure could reduce the number of legal marijuana users in the state from more than 28,000 to about 2,000.
Friday's hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee made it clear that even its supporters see it as a work in progress and the committee's discussion and action on the bill reflected the same. The committee passed a number of amendments to the measure and said they expect more to be made. The amended measured passed out of committee on a 10-2 vote.
The House still appears geared up for repeal, which has been turned back by the Senate. House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, and other GOP House leaders are advancing a new plan that would ask voters if they want to repeal the law. House leaders have made it clear they are likely to seek even stricter regulation if the Senate sends its overhaul measure.
During the morning's hearing of the overhaul measure, skeptics pointed to provisions for a system of certified couriers to transfer marijuana from growers to patients and another making the Montana Public Service Commission the regulatory authority.
The unusual step of proposing to use the commission that regulates utilities as the licensing authority for marijuana drew the head of the commission to testify against the measure.
Bill Gallagher said his agency already has a full plate of duties.
"Adding the role of state licensing authority contemplated in this bill would distract the agency from its core mission," he said.
Essmann said it's unlikely any state department would want to take up the task of regulating marijuana, but the commission is the best fit because of how it currently supervises the transfer of goods.
Critics also said a system of marijuana couriers — who would notify law enforcement before transporting the drug —would be difficult to implement.
Republican leadership in the House has already made clear it does not support the measure as it is proposed currently, making it likely the overhaul will be changed significantly if it's going to be the final action the Legislature takes on marijuana.
Supporters at the hearing said the bill is a good first step to limit marijuana use only to legitimate patients.
Rep. Diane Sands, who chaired an interim legislative committee that crafted its own overhaul bill, said she supported the measure. Sands said the bill included many of the same ideas that her committee included in House Bill 68.
"I think the provision in this bill removing cash from the industry is extremely important. Make it accountable, transparent, trackable and regulated," the Missoula Democrat said.
Some from the marijuana industry supported the measure, but with reservations.
"However flawed this bill may be, if it will allow just a handful of patients to live better lives than otherwise, it will have my support," said Tom Daubert from Patients and Families United.
Opponents of the measure came from the marijuana industry, along with those who support the law's total repeal. The marijuana growers and users said the bill would be too limiting while the repeal advocates said the drug cannot be regulated effectively.
Organizations strongly for repeal, including Safe Community, Safe Kids, said they could not back the regulation measure and asked lawmakers to consider repeal.
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Website: Mont. medical marijuana overhaul bill advances