The Associated Press April 18, 2011, 9:27AM ET

Lawmakers to decide final marijuana overhaul fate

After Republican plans to repeal Montana's medical marijuana law went up in smoke last week with the governor's veto, lawmakers have one last chance and just a few days to hash out an overhaul of what's become a booming industry.

Many lawmakers from both parties say something needs to be done to rein in medical marijuana in Montana now that it has reached beyond those with severe illnesses for whom voters in 2004 meant the law to apply.

Medical marijuana has been a massive growth industry in Montana since 2009 when the U.S. attorney general's office indicated the federal government would not prosecute cannabis users complying with state laws. The marijuana trade grew rapidly, spawning million-dollar businesses and tens of thousands of patients.

The latest count of legal marijuana card holders from the Department of Public Health and Human Services is 29,948, up 1,209 from last month. The total number of card holders is almost a 10-fold increase from the few thousand users who were registered with the program before 2009.

State law enforcement has said they are hamstrung in policing such massive numbers and their accompanying grow operations because of how ambiguous and overly protective the current drug law is.

Last month the federal government decided they needed to step in.

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

Lawmakers have said the intent of crafting an overhaul bill is to aid state law enforcement agencies in controlling the industry, but how the regulation measure implements such a task is still up in the air.

Three lawmakers from each chamber will begin meeting this week in a conference committee to figure out the final form of the overhaul measure, Senate Bill 423, before it lands on the governor's desk.

Since the beginning of the session House Bill 161, a repeal of the voter-approved marijuana law, has been the favored measure of Republican leadership. House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, carried the bill through the Legislature but the possibility of a governor veto forced Republicans to work up a contingency plan.

Last month, Republican lawmakers made a last-minute introduction of a bill to overhaul of Montana's medical marijuana industry.

After Republican fears of a governor veto became a reality Wednesday, the overhaul measure carried by Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, has become what is likely the last chance the Legislature has to restrict medical marijuana.

But the measure has not had an easy passage and it still has key hurdles left to clear with just a few days left in the session to do it.

The overhaul proposal was used as a battering ram for partisan bickering; it was heavily amended and rewritten at almost every stage of the process. In the end, each chamber endorsed an entirely different version of the bill.

The Senate's version proposes tight doctor patient regulations and reducing marijuana businesses to small non-profit grow operations. The biggest sticking point for some is that the bill would place the Department of Labor and Industry as the state's cannabis regulatory authority.

The House's version took an entirely different approach. It would entirely remove money from the system, require pot to be grown and given to patients free of charge and limit the number of patients per provider to one. Overall, the government involvement in the process is much less than the Senate version.

Lawmakers must now figure out how to merge two measures into one final proposal, or face the prospect of letting the marijuana industry continue to swell in its current form.

At the moment, lawmakers are indicating that the House's version of the bill will be the working blueprint for the final proposal.

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, has been involved in crafting a marijuana regulation bill for more a year and is putting together the framework for a compromise bill for the conference committee. Sands said she intends to tweak the House version, adding in some form of startup payment for providers and possibly increasing the number of patients a grower can provide for to two or three.

Sands said she plans on reducing the number of 18-30 year-olds who have access to the drug as well as stopping individual doctors from prescribing the drug to large numbers of patients. She anticipates the final version of the bill will reduce the number of medical marijuana users in the state by close to half or a two-thirds of the current users.

Whatever Sands puts together must pass Republican muster, which won't be easy. With firm control of both chambers and the conference committee it's very likely whatever overhaul plan the GOP wants will end up on the governor's desk.

Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, said he thinks the final bill needs to add back in a number of the ideas from the Senate proposal.

"I would like to see some more, tighter regulatory controls put back in the bill," Vincent said.

What the Gov. Brian Schweitzer does with such a regulation measure is another question, as he has offered minimal direction in public on how he believes medical marijuana should be regulated.

But last week, when he vetoed the proposal to repeal the medical marijuana law altogether, Schweitzer said that would go against the will of the voters who endorsed the marijuana referendum.

"I believe the proper resolution of this unanticipated outcome is not outright repeal, but amendment to serve the original intent -to provide a medicinal option for Montanans 'to alleviate the symptoms or effects of the patient's debilitating medical condition,'" Schweitzer said, citing the language of the original ballot initiative.


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