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SB423 in Senate Free Conference Committee
From left, Reps.Tom Berry, R-Roundup, and Cary Smith, R-Billings, listen to comments Monday by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, committee chairman, during a Senate Free Conference Committee on SB423.

HELENA -- A Senate-House conference committee approved nearly 160 amendments on Monday to craft a bill that seeks to drastically limit the number of medical marijuana patients, impose tight restrictions and squeeze the money out of what's been a thriving industry riddled with controversy.

The six-member-panel, chaired by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, worked for hours on Monday and will meet again Tuesday to put the final touches on his Senate Bill 423. It's the last surviving medical marijuana bill that has made it through both houses.

The conference committee's revised bill must be approved by both the Senate and House before it heads to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature or veto.

Last week, Schweitzer vetoed a bill by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, that would have repealed the state's medical marijuana law as of July 1.

Essmann's revised bill also would repeal the current medical marijuana law that voters passed by initiative in 2004. However, it would replace that law with one that seeks to greatly restrict the number of people authorized to use medical pot and do away with for-profit growers and caregivers.

Although some key issues haven't yet been resolved, the bill appears to be creating a new model for medical marijuana in Montana that committee members said more closely represents what they think Montanans chose in adopting the initiative.

The bill would end major medical marijuana growing and caregiver' operations, outlaw storefront dispensaries and forbid any advertising for the product.

Instead, the bill that's being drafted would allow those authorized to use marijuana for certain defined medical conditions to grow it themselves. Or they could find a provider to grow it for them without any compensation as a form of compassion.

However, the committee had not resolved whether it would allow the patient to pay for the cost of the provider to register with the state or compensate him for any expenses.

The panel also was still discussing how many people a provider could grow marijuana for, again without compensation. The committee seems to be leaning toward allowing a caregiver to grow medical pot for up to three people, or two others if he's growing it for himself.

The committee is working on amendments to prevent a "daisy chain" effect that would greatly expand the number of people forwhom they are growing medical marijuana.

The panel has shifted away from letting someone grow medical marijuana for up to three people, provided that two are related to them.

Also yet to be resolved is the definition of severe and chronic pain that committee members acknowledged is a key part of the bill.

As of last month, nearly 30,000 people had medical marijuana cards in Montana, with the lion's share of them for severe or chronic pain, an area where many legislators think the law has been widely abused. The number skyrocketed after the Obama administration's Justice Department in the fall of 2009 said the federal government wouldn't go after medical marijuana users who follow state law in states that legalized medical marijuana.

Essmann has said he wants a law that would cut the number of medical marijuana cardholders to well below than 2,000.

A summary of the Washington letter by Montana legislative staff said the U.S. attorneys said that the Justice Department there intends to "vigorously" enforce federal laws against people and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing and distribution of marijuana, even when these activities are allowed under state law. It said the Justice Department may impose civil fines or criminal prosecution related to:

-- Manufacturing or distributing marijuana or possessing it with the intent to distribute.

-- Leasing, renting, maintaining or using property to manufacture, store or distribute marijuana.

-- Financial activity related to the movement of drug proceeds.

The legislative committee hopes to get a response on Tuesday from Michael Cotter, U.S. attorney for Montana, whether he concurs with that letter from his Washington counterparts.

Besides Essmann, others on the committee are Sens. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, and Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, and Reps. Cary Smith, R-Missoula; Tom Berry, R-Roundup; and Diane Sands, D-Missoula.