Montana’s medical marijuana law needs an extensive makeover. It now fails to provide the limited patient access to the drug that voters supported six years ago.

“I would blow the whole thing up and start over,” Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos said. “I don’t think anyone has a problem with cancer patients who can’t eat to relieve pain and stimulate the appetite, or people with glaucoma and eye pressure. But now young men get medical marijuana for Hacky Sack injuries. If you don’t start over, you’re just going to keep putting Band-Aids on it session after session.”

Paxinos said the medical marijuana law needs to be a legislative effort, rather than an initiative law, because the details are critical.

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, who has been working on medical marijuana issues with the Legislature’s Children and Families Interim Committee notes that 90 percent of medical marijuana card holders are on the registry because of “chronic pain.” Bullock said the law was intended to help seriously ill individuals.

“We need to find that middle ground where that intent is preserved,” he said. “Let’s build a framework under the law so it meets the intent of the voters,” Bullock said.

Whether the law is repealed and a new one is written, as Paxinos suggests, or the initiative law is heavily amended to provide a better legal framework, as Bullock recommends, significant change is in order.

What’s the problem?

• 3,380 new card holders registered just last month, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

• 5,881 people under age 30 have cards.

• 13,291 people have cards for no reason besides “chronic pain.”

• Only 521 people have cards for cancer, glaucoma or HIV.

• About 50 medical marijuana businesses opened up in Billings alone.

• 3,438 “caregivers” are growing/transporting marijuana in the state.

• 786 convicts on probation or parole had medical marijuana cards as of May, according to the Department of Corrections. That was over 9 percent of the probation/parole population — five times the rate at which the general population had obtained medical marijuana cards.

This out-of-control growth should spur the 2011 Legislature to action.

In Billings, Paxinos expects his office soon will have to bring a case to test the medical marijuana law against court orders for probation. Offenders on probation and parole are required to abstain from alcohol and illegal drugs. Violations of that order result in going to jail or prison. However, nearly a tenth of all Montana’s probation and parole population has obtained medical marijuana cards, which they claim legalizes their use of marijuana.

The Children and Families Committee has undertaken a lengthy study of many issues, which continues at the Capitol on Aug. 12 with another subcommittee meeting. The committee has requested recommendations from the Montana Association of Counties and Montana League of Cities and Towns.

Last month, Bullock furnished the committee with a summary of “major challenges” the law now poses for Montana law enforcement. In the document, Mike Batista, head of the Division of Criminal Justice, included possible solutions, such as:

• Restricting medical marijuana to marijuana actually grown in the state of Montana.

• Allowing only patients and caregivers, not caregivers’ employees, to transport medical marijuana.

• Amending the law so that nobody with any felony conviction could be a caregiver or employed by a caregiver. Present law only excludes people with felony drug convictions from being caregivers.

• Clarifying that only people with valid medical marijuana cards can legally possess marijuana as patients, not people who later claim that a doctor said marijuana would be helpful for their health.

To carry out the intent of voters, who overwhelmingly supported the 2004 initiative, lawmakers should amend that law so that it clearly restricts medical marijuana to seriously ill individuals with certain health problems. That’s how the 2004 initiative was presented and the reason why so many Montanans supported it. The law was not intended to create or support medical marijuana businesses.

The law didn’t anticipate that parolees would sign up for cards. The law should forbid anyone with a felony conviction from getting a medical marijuana card or serving as a caregiver. The law should forbid anyone on parole or probation from holding a medical marijuana card.

The law should be more restrictive on issuing medical marijuana cards for “chronic pain.”

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