HELENA — The Senate and House, by overwhelming margins Thursday night, voted to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana law and added some of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s suggested changes, but balked at his major proposals.
In what has been one of the most contentious issues of the 2011 session, the Legislature gave final approval to Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, D-Billings.
The bill, introduced late by a subcommittee and rewritten twice, was the last-surviving major medical marijuana bill this session.
Shortly before adjourning the session, the House approved the amended version 78-17, while the Senate endorsed it 35-15.
The bill now goes to Schweitzer, who can sign it into law, veto it or let it take law without his signature. Earlier in the session, Schweitzer vetoed House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, which would have repealed the medical marijuana law.
Schweitzer had no immediate comment on SB423 with the last-minute amendments.
On Wednesday, he called the bill “unconstitutional on its face” and offered a series of amendments that he said would improve the bill.
The panel adopted a number of Schweitzer’s suggestions, including requiring two physicians to sign off on a minor being allowed to use a nonsmoking form of medical marijuana, not turning over the names of medical marijuana cardholders over to local law enforcement and setting reasonable hours for law enforcement officials to conduct inspections.
However, the Senate-House conference committee did not go along with Schweitzer’s suggestion that medical marijuana providers (who are now called caregivers) could grow for 25 people. Instead, the panel limited the number to three people, including the provider, just as the committee had originally proposed.
Under the bill, medical marijuana cardholders can grow marijuana for themselves or obtain it from providers at no charge.
Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said the committee believed that Schweitzer’s recommendation of 25 patients per provider would violate U.S. Justice Department policy as expressed by U.S. attorneys for Montana and a number of other states. These officials have said that it is illegal under federal law to grow and possess marijuana.
The Senate-House conferees also rejected Schweitzer’s suggestion that providers could charge patients for growing medical marijuana for them. The bill as passed does not allow any compensation but does allow a patient to pay a provider’s state licensing fees.
In his speech to the Senate, Essmann said, “I believe we have taken a great step forward if we pass this bill today.”
He said the bill will allow the truly ill people to have access to medical marijuana.
“I don’t believe the voters in 2004 voted to establish a regulated industry,” he said. “I believe they voted to help people. I believe this is a step to restore that.”
Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, disagreed.
“We came into this session to get something reasonable, and something reasonable means access to the folks who are ill,” he said. “This is a set of amendments that still doesn’t allow that. If we had a regulated industry, we could make this work. We don’t have that.”
During the House debate, Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, said, “People sent us here to do something with a problem. We’ve done the best we can.”
Added Sands: “Each time we’ve had another version of this bill, I think it’s gotten better.”
But Rep. Bill Harris, R-Mosby, criticized the bill, saying marijuana still will be available “in the alley and in the dark.”
“I see no improvement unless you’re a marijuana user,” he said.
SB423 repeals the current law, which 62 percent of Montana voters passed as an initiative in 2004.
SB423 imposes some controls and a regulatory structure to a booming industry whose critics and even some supporters agree has spiraled out of control over the past 18 months. Traveling cannabis caravans signed up hundreds, if not thousands, of people after short visits with physicians, often over the Internet.
The number of people eligible to use medical marijuana in Montana exploded from about 4,000 in September 2009 to 30,000 today, and large-scale medical marijuana growing operations and storefront dispensaries popped up across the state.
The bill seeks to make it much tougher for some people to get medical marijuana cards, with stricter requirements for those claiming “severe chronic pain.”