HELENA — Medical marijuana has fallen far below the radar as a legislative issue this year, in sharp contrast to the 2011 session.
Lawmakers this year have introduced only a few medical-marijuana-related bills — most of them to clean up existing law to comply with court rulings —with a few others coming later.
Medical marijuana was one of the most contentious issues of 2011 session.
Two years ago, medical-marijuana users and advocates by the dozens packed the Capitol hallways and hearing rooms to oppose various bills aimed at reining in an industry that many legislators contended had reeled out of control.
The 2011 Legislature quickly passed a bill to repeal the initiative passed by Montana voters in 2004 to legalize medical marijuana for certain medical conditions. Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed the bill.
After that, current Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, pushed through a bill in the final weeks to impose tighter regulations on the industry and squeeze the profits out of what had been a booming business.
Opponents of the law obtained enough signatures to place it on the ballot as a referendum in November 2012. However, Montanans voted, by 57 percent to 43 percent, to keep it.
Essmann’s 2011 law has faced legal challenges. The latest development was a Helena district judge last month, for the second time since 2011, blocking enforcement of some provisions.
Four bills this year by freshman Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, seek to fix some of these legal problems that Essmann’s bill faced. His bills, which will be heard Feb. 13 by the House Human Services Committee, are:
— House Bill 340, to eliminate the requirement that the Board of Medical Examiners must automatically review certain physicians who have provided written certification for more than 25 people, in any 12-month period, to use medical marijuana.
— HB341, to allow medical-marijuana providers to be paid for providing pot to cardholders.
— HB342, to remove the three-person limit of the number of cardholders that medical-marijuana providers can serve.
— HB343, to eliminate medical-marijuana record keeping and provisions for automatic inspections of providers.
“The ones that we’re running really don’t change anything,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “The court enjoined five things (in Essmann’s bill). My bills address four of the five.”
He said he’s been working with the Montana Cannabis Information Society, an industry group, on the bills.
“On paper, you’d say I would be one of the least likely to run these bills,” McCarthy said.
He was in U.S. military intelligence for 23 years, and participated in some drug interdictions to intercept illegal drugs being smuggled by land, air or sea.
“We’re not debating the merits of medical marijuana,” McCarthy said. “The voters have had it in their hands twice. We’re trying to fix some of the technical provisions.”
Medical marijuana “is the safer alternative for a number of people,” McCarthy said. “When federal law changes, I’d like to see Montana law change.”
Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she is having a bill drafted to change Montana medical-marijuana laws, but only if the federal government removes marijuana, or cannabis, from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act.
“I thought it would make sense to have a bill that actually regulated the medical-marijuana industry,” Caferro said. “It would include quality measures and potentially some incentives for growing medical marijuana in a way that is environmentally friendly.”
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said he’s also is looking at that possibility with a future bill.
“It would require the state Board of Pharmacy to mirror whatever the federal government does,” if it removes marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, he said.
Wanzenried is having legislation drafted to add post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to list of medical conditions for which physicians could recommend medical marijuana to patients. He had a similar bill that failed in 2011.