HELENA — Republican legislative leaders strongly condemned Montana's medical marijuana program Thursday as they spoke to reporters at the midsession break, while Democratic leaders denounced repeal attempts as another GOP attempt to defy the will of voters.
At a Capitol press conference, House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, talked about his bill to repeal the law — and Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, spoke strongly against medical marijuana, although he stopped short of saying it should be repealed.
"On marijuana, it's a horse of another color now," Peterson said. "You know, we started out with a white horse and now we got a black horse. And we got to do something about it. It's out of control. We don't need a state run with this kind of activity."
Peterson did say that perhaps Montanans should have another chance to vote on the issue, and that they might change their mind this time and reject it.
In 2004, Montana voters, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent, voted to legalize the use of marijuana for medical treatment purposes.
Milburn's House Bill 161 would repeal that law. The bill has cleared the House on a mostly party-line vote and now faces action in the Senate.
Milburn said Montana now is confronted with "an out-of-control organized drug trade" involving organized crime.
"We're talking about infiltrating into the schools, into the neighborhoods, taking down whole neighborhoods," Milburn said. "That's what we're talking about now. So we're talking about a totally different issue than what the people voted in."
Democratic leaders, however, were adamant against the repeal of the medical marijuana law.
"That's not what the people of this state told us to do," said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte. "There are sick and dying people in this state that deserve to have their drug of choice. We have to fix the system, not repeal it."
Senate Minority Leader Carol Williams, D-Missoula, called it another Republican attempt this session to hijack a voter-passed law.
The medical marijuana law needs to be tweaked, not repealed, she said.
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"But to go out and say we're going to repeal it is one more attempt to thumb your nose at the voters," she said.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, consistent with his policy, declined to say what he will do if a repeal bill hits his desk, but he sounds as if he agrees with Williams and Sesso.
"I think most people in Montana agree with me that the result of the initiative that passed is one, that we have more people with medical marijuana cards that any of us anticipated there would have been," he said in an interview this week. "The people ... said that there are a certain number of people in our population that need or require the medical marijuana as part of their treatment.
"I'm not going to say to the people of Montana that you were wrong about that, but I certainly think that there are people that have got marijuana cards that just want to smoke pot, not that they need medicinal cannabis, as it's now called."
At the GOP press conference, Peterson asked if Montanans want one-third of high school kids with medical-marijuana cards.
Official state statistics show that 51 people under age 18 have been issued medical marijuana cards as of Feb. 1, or 0.18 percent of the 28,362 people with cards.
Milburn urged repeal of the law to give Montanans a chance to reassess and re-evaluate it "so we can get back on track with the medical part of it, sometime this session or in the future."
"We have to protect the public safety and welfare of the people of our state," he said.
Williams said the Legislature should consider HB68, by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, which was developed by an interim committee that studied the issue. That bill, which hasn't been acted on, imposes stricter licensing and regulatory standards to stop some of current abuses and charges fees to pay for it.
She cited current and past Republican legislative efforts to change voter-passed initiatives.