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HELENA — With just three weeks left in the 2011 legislative session, it’s as unclear now as it was three months ago what lawmakers finally will do with the difficult medical marijuana issue.

Despite hundred of hours of work on the issue by many legislators, the options remain the same as they were in January. Legislators are torn over how to fix an industry that many politicians from both sides believe has careened out of control.

Here’s a look at the options still alive:

Repeal

House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, would repeal the law that Montana voters passed by initiative in 2004.

What would it do? It would ban all legal use of medical marijuana on July 1. Illegal growing and selling operations also would be closed in three months.

Where’s the bill? It’s passed both chambers, but the Senate amended it. If the House accepts the Senate amendments, HB161 will go directly to Gov. Brian Schweitzer for his signature or veto. If the House rejects the Senate amendments, the bill goes to a conference committee to iron out differences.

Pros? Backers say the bill rids Montana of what one lawmaker has called “a scourge” on the state. They say it ends a system that has made a mockery of the law, with 28,300 cardholders now able to use medical marijuana. Medicinal pot dispensaries no longer would be near schools legitimizing the product. It would be harder for this marijuana to slip its way into schools.

Cons? While some have abused medical marijuana, opponents say the herb has also helped treat many seriously and terminally ill people after narcotics prescribed by doctors didn’t. Illegal pot was here long before medical marijuana was legalized and will still be here if it’s banned. Some 30,000 medical marijuana cardholders, caregivers and growers would immediately become criminals if they kept using or growing the product. A growing marijuana industry would be eliminated, putting up to 2,000 people out of work.

Who’s for it? A majority of House Republicans and Senate Republicans.

Who’s against it? Most Democrats in both houses. Although HB161 passed the Senate, it was clearly a second choice for most senators who favor a repeal and overhaul bill that was stalled.

Chances? Hard to say. Schweitzer has said he wants to see the medical marijuana law fixed, not repealed. An outright or amendatory veto may be likely.

Repeal and reform

Senate Bill 434, would reform the medical marijuana system and is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, on behalf of a subcommittee that came up with the bill last month.

What would it do? It also repeals the current law July 1, but sets up a new system with much stricter regulations and licensing requirements. Patients claiming they suffer from severe and chronic pain would need to see their primary care physician at least four times in six months. A second doctor who is a pain specialist would have to concur before these patients could obtain medical marijuana cards. Growing operations would become nonprofit operations.

Where’s the bill? It passed the Senate and the House accepted it late by suspending the rules. Milburn has assigned it to the House Human Services Committee, where other bills to keep medical marijuana legal but tighten restrictions have languished.

Pros? Backers say it would set up a system so that legitimate, seriously ill people still could obtain medical marijuana, but others couldn’t. Essmann’s goal is to tamp down the number of total marijuana cardholders to less than 2,000 from the current 28,300.

Cons? No agency wants the task of regulating medial marijuana. Already in SB423, that task has shuffled around from the Public Service Commission to the Department of Agriculture and now the Department of Labor and Industry. Some opponents believe SB423 is too strict and that many sick people couldn’t afford the additional doctor visits to confirm what they already know is wrong with them. Repeal advocates think it’s not tough enough.

Who’s for it? Those who don’t want repeal, but believe this is the best remaining option, even if they don’t like everything in SB423.

Who’s against it? Those who want repeal.

Chances? The question is whether it will ever see the light of day on the House floor. The House might sit on it until its leaders see what happens to Milburn’s repeal bill. It’s too early to say if Schweitzer would sign it.

Put it on the ballot again

House Bill 175, by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, would let voters decide in November 2012 whether to repeal or keep whatever the current medical marijuana law is at the end of this session.

Where’s the bill? It has passed the House and will be heard in the Senate.

Pros: It would let Montana voters decide the issue, just as they did on medical marijuana in 2004.

Cons: It does nothing for the next 20 months, so the medical marijuana status quo would remain in place in Montana.

Who’s for it: It’s a fallback position for most people if all other options fail. A number of legislators believe that only the voters have the right to repeal a voter-passed law.

Who’s against it? The people who say that something needs to be done now, or Montana will see 40,000 cardholders by November 2012. They also worry about how much money national marijuana groups would dump into Montana for that campaign.

Chances? It’s hard to say. If all else fails, this is a safe backup position. The election always could be move up to this year, although special elections are costly. As a referendum, the bill wouldn’t go to the governor.

Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. Contact him at chuck.johnson@lee.net or 800-442-2598.

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