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Medical marijuana bill returns to Senate

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HELENA — The House gave final approval Tuesday to a major medical marijuana bill and sent it back to the Senate.

The House voted 77-22 for Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings.

The House Human Services Committee amended SB423 in a way that completely rewrote the bill. The Senate will be asked whether to approve or reject the House amendments.

If, as expected, the Senate rejects the amendments, the bill would go to a joint Senate-House conference committee to resolve the differences. The House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, has called the bill a work in progress and said he expects a conference committee to continue working on the bill.

SB423 is the lone surviving bill that both houses have passed to regulate Montana’s booming medical marijuana industry that critics and even some supporters have said has reeled out of control. It would repeal the current voter-passed law on July 1.

It would impose new strict controls aimed at drastically limiting the number of people eligible for medical marijuana cards. Backers have said they want to cut the number of patients eligible for medical cards to less than 2,000, down from the current 28,300 people with cards.

The amended bill also seeks to squeeze all money out of the current system by banning growing operations and dispensaries. Instead, it would allow one provider (the new term for caregiver) to grow marijuana for one patient, and not vice versa, but without any compensation. A provider could grow marijuana for up to three people, but two would have to be relatives, and the grower couldn’t be paid for growing medical pot.

The other major medical marijuana bill that has passed both houses is HB161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. The bill would repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law July 1 and proposes nothing to replace it. HB161 is before Gov. Brian Schweitzer, awaiting his signature or veto.

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