HELENA — The medical marijuana debate took an unexpected twist Friday as Sen. Dave Lewis unveiled a surprise: a rewritten version of his bill that was prepared by the marijuana growers' association and incorporates features of his and an interim committee's bill.
At a hearing on the Helena Republican's original Senate Bill 154 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lewis instead presented the rewritten measure, which he called a "gray bill," that included major changes.
Lewis' original bill had been considered one of two major proposals this session — along with HB68, by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula — that sought to bring the burgeoning medical marijuana industry under greater state licensing and regulation. They also were intended to serve as alternatives to repealing the 2004 voter-passed law legalizing medical marijuana, as a House bill passed Thursday would do.
Sands' bill, introduced on behalf of an interim committee, sits in a House committee but hasn't been voted on.
Under questioning by the chairman, Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, Lewis said the gray bill was prepared by Jim Gingery, executive director of the Montana Medical Growers Association. The gray bill was not prepared by the legislative staff, but, as it said at the top of the measure, it was "revised and rewritten" to include parts of HB68 and "the MMGA 2011 Legislators' Guide to Medical Cannabis."
Gray bills are used only rarely in legislative subcommittees to incorporate rewrites of bills done by the legislative staff.
"We highly discourage gray bills for the reason that they do confuse the public," said Susan Fox, executive director of the Montana Legislative Council.
The gray bill version of Lewis' bill differed widely from his original SB154, and many of the people testifying spoke on his original measure, not the revised one. Murphy told the people in the audience that they could address only Lewis' original bill.
Gone in the gray bill was the 10 percent tax on marijuana growers that would have raised an estimated $36.8 million in 2012 and 2013 and $49.1 million the next two years and attracted millions of additional matching federal money for services for the elderly.
Instead, it would charge licensing fees that would distribute $1 million annually to local governments and $3 million to programs for seniors, Lewis said, although that wasn't part of the gray bill.
The revised bill directs that any excess revenue from licensing fees go to educational programs for schools and the public on medical pot.
His revised bill also deletes the term "marijuana" throughout the medical marijuana law and instead substitutes the word "cannabis," as the industry prefers.
Lewis defended his revised bill, saying afterward, "Several members of the committee told me they wanted to put these bills together."
He said he respected the intentions of those wanting to repeal the state's law, but said, "I don't think you can put the toothpaste back in the tube."
He said the revised bill would set up a much smaller regulatory system than he originally envisioned.
"I want to know how much is grown, where it goes and who ends up with it," he said.
Lewis' original bill drew support from a number of medical marijuana patients, caregivers and growers.
Bill Hund, a grower in Butte, said he employs eight people.
"We can double the jobs that are out there now and improve the economy," he said. "I think in this time of hard economic times, this is a jobs bill."
"With a regulation bill, I can pay taxes," said Jeff Swenson. "With a repeal bill, I will have to take advantage of the state's disability services."
Advocates for seniors who provide services to them thanked Lewis for including money for them in the original bill.
"We are here because older Montanans need us, especially in light of the silver tsunami our state is facing," said Susan Kohler, CEO of Missoula Aging Services. "By the year 2025, Montana will be fifth per capita in our older population."
Opponents included some advocates for repeal.
Cherrie Brady of Billings said her group, Safe Communities, Safe Kids, obtained more than 19,000 signatures in a week last year but failed by 5,000 signatures to put a repeal of the law on the November 2010 ballot.
"It's very clear their next step to legalize marijuana is to get states to tax marijuana," she said, referring to national marijuana advocacy groups.
Susan Smith, also of Billings, said it would be "a slap in the face" for older people to receive money from people addicted to marijuana.
Candace Payne, speaking for the Rimrock Foundation, said the Billings addiction treatment center advocates repeal of the medical marijuana law. Regulation, she said, "will start the state down the same addictive path we are with gaming."