Medical marijuana bill

Rep. Mike Milburn speaker of the Montana House and sponsor of House Bill 161 to repeal the Medical Marijuana Act. Milburn is scheduled to sit on a panel of pot advocates and opponents to discuss the fallout from a new state law and federal crackdown on medical marijuana operations.

ELIZA WILEY/Independent Record

HELENA — Montana House Speaker Mike Milburn said Thursday he wouldn't change anything from the 2011 legislative session that saw his bill to repeal the state's medical marijuana law vetoed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

The sponsor of the measure to strike down the 2004 voter-approved initiative and bar medical marijuana in Montana said he would do it all over again if given the chance.

"I can't say I would change anything. What we set out to do, we did. I think we got a lot further than we ever thought we would," he said.

After Schweitzer's veto, the session ended with legislators approving a strict law that limits who can qualify as a medical marijuana patient and eliminates the commercial sale of pot.

The new law is facing both a court challenge and a voter referendum this November.

Milburn made his comments after participating in a panel discussion along with medical marijuana advocates and opponents, following a Helena screening of the film "The Code of the West" that documented last year's legislative debate.

The Cascade Republican was met by a hostile crowd of marijuana advocates in the audience who heckled him when he declined to disclose the source for his assertion that schoolchildren were "pimping" themselves out for marijuana. He also received boos when he said he said he did not know whether a cancer patient depicted in the film should have access to medical marijuana.

Milburn was unapologetic in the face of the chilly reception. He said he only learned prior to the 2011 legislative session how out of control the marijuana industry had become in the state and that groups he met with told him the drug was reaching schools.

He said he decided to open negotiations from a position of strength by backing a total repeal, and the end result was severely restricted medical marijuana providers from selling their product, tightened the qualifications to register as a medical marijuana user and increased the regulation over doctors who recommend medical marijuana for their patients.

Parts of the law have been temporarily blocked by a district judge, and arguments over that injunction are scheduled to be heard by the Montana Supreme Court on May 30.

While the debate in the Legislature was happening last year, federal agents executed 26 search warrants on homes, businesses and warehouses owned by medical marijuana operators. The documentary's filmmakers were on hand as agents seized hundreds of marijuana plants from the Helena grow operation of Montana Cannabis, one of the largest medical marijuana operations in the state.

The effect of the federal crackdown was that many providers closed down, both those who were raided and others who shut their doors or went underground for fear of being next.

The passage of the new law less than two months later added momentum to the industry slowdown. The number of registered users and providers from a peak of more than 30,000 users and 4,800 providers in spring 2011 to 10,640 users and 414 providers last month.

"The Code of the West" follows the main players on both sides of the debate as it unfolded, including Milburn. Also featured is lobbyist Tom Daubert, a prominent medical marijuana advocate and a former Montana Cannabis partner who recently struck a plea deal on federal charges that he maintained a drug-involved premises.

The cameras also follow anti-marijuana advocate Cherrie Brady and cancer patient and medical marijuana user Lori Burnam through the legislative process.

Milburn sat on the panel after the documentary's screening at the Myrna Loy Center along with Democratic state Rep. Pat Noonan, Helena Mayor Jim Smith, former medical marijuana provider Heather Devine and the filmmaker, Rebecca Richman Cohen.

Smith drew the most applause when he criticized Milburn and other legislative leaders for not considering a compromise bill that had been hammered out by all sides of the debate prior to the 2011 session.

Smith also drew cheers when he said he believes marijuana should be regulated at the federal level like cigarettes and alcohol.

But the biggest audience response came during the film when the camera zoomed on a t-shirt with Milburn's picture with horns drawn coming from his head.

Milburn laughed it off.

"Where do I get one of those t-shirts?" he said.

"The Code of the West" is being shown in selected cities across Montana this week and next. The documentary will play in Helena again on Friday, then in Billings, Missoula and Bozeman next week.