HELENA -- When lawmakers return to work this week, one of the remaining major issues they will face is the bill to tighten down Montana's booming medical marijuana industry and greatly restrict the product's availability to patients.
In what's likely their final week, legislators appear ready to pass Senate Bill 423, the "repeal and regulate" measure by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings.
It's the last-surviving major bill to address medical marijuana after Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn. The speaker's bill would have repealed Montana's 2004 voter-passed initiative that legalized the use of medical pot here.
SB423 surfaced about a month ago and has changed often since then.
After the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked on Milburn's repeal bill, a subcommittee headed by Essmann drafted this new bill as an alternative. After SB423 passed the Senate, a House committee did a complete rewrite before the House approved it. Then it was rewritten yet another time by a Senate-House conference committee.
Both the Senate and House have to approve the final version before it heads to Schweitzer, who has said he would like to make some amendatory vetoes to offer more changes.
Here, in question-and-answer format, is a look at what's in the latest iteration of this oft-changing bill.
What does SB423 do?
It would repeal the state's medical marijuana law on July 1 and put strict a new regulatory law in its place. Essmann and other supporters believe it will add some needed regulatory controls to the medical marijuana industry that were lacking before. Opponents contend it's nothing more than repeal by another name.
How would it work?
Once the current law is repealed, SB423 would ban all medical-marijuana-growing operations, storefront dispensaries and infused marijuana product manufacturers.
How would patients get medical marijuana under the new law?
SB423 would go to a decentralized, volunteer growing model. Marijuana cardholders could grow their own pot at home. They could possess up to four mature plants, 12 seedlings and one ounce of usable marijuana.
Or they could find a volunteer provider — the new name for caregiver — to grow pot for them, but at no cost. The same no-compensation restriction applies to marijuana-infused product manufacturers that make oils, butters and other products.
However, the bill would allow patients to reimburse providers or manufacturers for the cost of their state registration cards or renewal fees, estimated to be $500 apiece.
A provider could grow marijuana for up to three people, counting himself, again without compensation.
Registered cardholders who designate a provider could not be providers for others. That's an attempt to prevent "daisy chain" situations that would exponentially increase the number of providers.
What restrictions are there on marijuana cardholders?
They would have to be Montana residents and not under the supervision of courts or the Department of Corrections. They would have keep a new laminated card in their possession. Those convicted of driving while intoxicated would lose their marijuana cards.
Cardholders could not use marijuana while operating a motor vehicle, aircraft or motorboat. They could not use it at health care facilities, on schools or post-secondary school property, at public parks, public beaches, public recreation centers or youth centers or on the property of places of worship. They could not use marijuana "in plain view or in a place open to the general public" or where exposure to marijuana smoke adversely affects children.
What do volunteer marijuana providers have to do?
To qualify, providers first would have to undergo fingerprinting and criminal background checks. They could not have any felony or drug conviction.
A provider could possess up to four mature plants, 12 seedlings and one ounce of usable marijuana for each of his three patients, counting himself.
Providers would be forbidden to advertise their services.
How would the bill limit the number of medical marijuana cardholders?
SB423 is intended to make it much harder for people claiming severe or chronic pain to get cards. Critics of the current law believe this has been the major loophole that has allowed thousands of people to obtain medical marijuana cards. The number of medical marijuana cardholders skyrocketed from about 4,000 in September 2009 to about 30,000 last month.
State statistics show about 28,000 people obtained medical marijuana here for some for of severe or chronic pain. Only about 2,100 patients are authorized medical marijuana for wasting syndrome, cancer, glaucoma or HIV (AIDS), multiple sclerosis, seizures or severe nausea. (Sometimes people cite multiple reasons so the numbers may not add up.)
Essmann has said he would like to limit marijuana cardholders to less than 2,000 people under his bill.
The surge occurred after the Obama administration's Justice Department said it would not prosecute medical marijuana users and suppliers in states that had legalized it. Hundreds if not thousands of cardholders here were signed up at traveling "cannabis clinics" around the state. Critics said that many patients received cards in less than 10 minutes with a brief visits with a physicians, often out-of-state doctors via Skype, an Internet videoconferencing program.
How would SB423 restrict cards for what is now called "severe chronic" pain?
Using a definition from state Board of Medical Examiners, the bill defines it as "persistent pain of severe intensity that significantly interferes with daily activities as documented by the patient's treating physician and by objective proof of the etiology of the pain, including diagnostic tests that may include but are not limited to the results of an x-ray, computerized tomography scan or magnetic resonance imaging."
Or, a second physician, independent of the original doctor, would have to confirm the severe chronic pain diagnosis through a physical examination.
What about physicians?
They would have to have an ongoing bona fide professional relationships with patients in order to certify them for a marijuana card. They would be obliged to follow a "standard of care" specified in the bill.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services would inform the Board of Medical Examiners with the names of any physicians who certified more than 15 patients each for medical marijuana over a 12-month period. The board would review these physicians' practices to determine whether they met the standard of care, with the physicians responsible for paying the cost of these reviews.
The bill would ban the doctors' use of telemedicine to certify that patients for marijuana.
Physicians also would be forbidden from having any affiliation, including financial, with marijuana providers.
Who would regulate the industry?
The Department of Public Health and Environmental Sciences would issue cards to marijuana cardholders and providers. The department would have to provide the names of cardholders and providers to the local law enforcement agencies where they live.
The department would have to set up a toll-free hot line for people to report suspected abuses of the law. The department could investigate them or refer them to local law enforcement agencies.
What authority would local governments have?
Cities and counties could by ordinance or resolution regulate and inspect marijuana providers and marijuana-infused product providers
What about the transition if SB423 passes?
If it passes, no new medical marijuana cards would be issued as of the bill's passage date. On June 1, marijuana card renewals would be subject to the new provisions of SB423. Cards would be reissued when volunteer providers are identified.
On July 1, the current medical marijuana law would be repealed. Current medical marijuana growers, storefront dispensaries and manufacturers would be shut down. They would be required to turn over any mature marijuana plants, cuttings, clones, usable marijuana or marijuana-related products still in their possession to local law enforcement agencies for destruction.
Oct. 1 would be the deadline for the state to complete its fingerprinting and background checks for volunteer providers.