Senate blocks debate on medical pot repeal bill; House passes repeal referendum

2011-03-26T16:53:00Z 2011-03-26T21:50:03Z Senate blocks debate on medical pot repeal bill; House passes repeal referendum

By CHARLES S. JOHNSON

Gazette State Bureau‌

The Billings Gazette

HELENA — The Senate on Saturday refused to blast out of committee the House speaker’s stalled bill that would repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law July 1, possibly dealing it a lethal blow.

Over in the House, representatives passed a bill on a preliminary vote to let voters decide in November 2012 whether to repeal or keep the law that legalized medical marijuana.

And on Monday, the full Senate will debate a newly written bill to repeal the current law and replace it with one intended to more strictly regulate what would be called “therapeutic marijuana.” It is intended to make it much harder for people to obtain medical marijuana cards and try to squeeze profits out of the industry.

These three bills are the remaining major options for the Legislature to address the medical marijuana issue.

In the Senate, House Bill 161, by Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, is stuck in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deadlocked 6-6 over it earlier this month. The bill has passed the House.

The Senate, on a 25-23 vote, rejected a motion by Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, to blast HB161 out of committee and move it to the Senate floor for debate Wednesday. There was no debate on the merits of the bill because it was a procedural motion.

Four Republicans joined 21 Democrats to block HB161 from reaching the Senate floor. The Republicans were Sens. Joe Balyeat of Bozeman, Dave Lewis of Helena, Terry Murphy of Cardwell and Chas Vincent of Libby.

Democratic Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman joined 22 other Republicans to support Zinke’s motion.

Republicans Jason Priest of Red Lodge and Jon Sonju of Kalispell were absent but excused. Even if they had been there and voted with Zinke, his motion would have failed on a tie vote.

Meanwhile, the House passed HB175, by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, to place before voters in 2012 the decision whether to repeal or retain the state Medical Marijuana Act. It passed 71-28 and faces a final House vote next week before moving to the Senate.

“I feel HB175 is needed because I’ve had many constituents tell me to get rid of it,” he said.

In 2004, Montana voters, by 62 percent to 38 percent, passed an initiative to allow marijuana to be used for medical reasons in the state.

“It was the people of Montana who gave the opportunity to use medical marijuana,” he said. “The people of Montana should have the opportunity to repeal the law.”

Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, asked how HB175 would be affected by other medical marijuana bills in the session.

“Whatever form the Medical Marijuana Act comes out of the Legislature, that’s what would be on the ballot in 2012,” Regier said.

She told the House that a better bill is on its way, Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, which a subcommittee wrote last week. It also repeals the current law, Sands said, but it sets up a much stricter regulatory system, while still making medical marijuana available for seriously ill people.

Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, endorsed Regier’s bill, saying Montanans want to be rid of medical marijuana completely and don’t want another attempt to regulate it.

“It’s an albatross that’s been hanging around the neck of the people of Montana,” he said.

Speaker Milburn supported HB175 and took a few pokes at SB423. He drew laughs on the House floor when he said HB423 would make the state Public Service Commission the licensing authority for medical marijuana and added: “Just imagine the next (PSC) election.”

SB423 is “totally unworkable” in its present form, Milburn said. “They have a long ways to go on the bill.”

“We will at least have this bill,” he said of HB175.

Rep. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, took offense at the joking on the House floor over the issue.

Phillips said he recently missed a day at the Legislature to meet with his mother and her oncologist. He said his mother has stage four lung cancer and has been told she has six months to live. They talked about her using medical marijuana to ease some of her anxieties.

The medical marijuana issue isn’t one to laugh about, he said.

“It’s for more courage to realize that we need to fix this, people,” Phillips said. “It’s for more courage to help people like my mother.”

The Senate will take up SB423 as its first bill to debate Monday before turning to HB2, the state’s major budget bill.

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