HELENA -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Friday that he will let a controversial medical marijuana bill take law without his signature.
He made it clear that he's not wild about the bill but said he can't support the status quo. Earlier in the session, Schweitzer vetoed a bill calling for an outright repeal of Montana's medical marijuana law.
"So I will hold my nose and allow this to be law until the Legislature gets back to session (in 2013)," he said. "I'm not going to sign it."
Schweitzer announced his plans for the bill at a late-afternoon press conference.
As a result, Senate Bill 423 will become law. It repeals Montana's 2004 voter-passed law that allows some people to use marijuana for certain medical reasons.
Instead, SB423 puts into place a much tougher law with stricter regulations on the business and is intended to make it much harder for people claiming "severe chronic pain" to get medical marijuana cards. Bill supporters have said that will help close a big loophole that has allowed many people claiming severe and chronic pain to obtain cards now.
Under the law, large marijuana-growing operations and storefront medical-pot dispensaries must shut down operations by July 1. The system will transform to one in which people authorized to use medical marijuana can either grow their own or obtain it without compensation from a provider who can grow it for up to three people. It's designed to squeeze any profits out of what's been a booming industry in Montana.
"Montanan expected more of this 62nd Legislature when it comes to this issue, and they didn't deliver," Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer hasn't yet received the bill from the Legislature, which adjourned Thursday night. Because lawmakers have adjourned, he cannot issue an amendatory veto on a bill suggesting changes.
On Wednesday, Schweitzer called SB423 "unconstitutional on its face" and on Thursday suggested changes to the Legislature, which adopted some but not all of them, before it passed the bill for a final time.
So the governor now has three options with the bill: sign it into law, veto it or let it become law without his signature.
"I guess I could veto it," he said. "I could say that this is a danged-poor bill, and you started out with a good bill (from an interim committee), and you went downhill for almost 88 days. But I'm kind of painted in a corner. They painted Montana in a corner. They accepted some of the language that I believe makes the bill constitutional. So that is good. Is the bill perfect? Not even close."
Schweitzer went on to say, "But can I veto and allow the Wild West go on for the next couple of years? I don't think so."
He was referring to the current situation with medical marijuana, in which the number of people authorized to use it has skyrocketed from 4,000 in September 2009 to nearly 30,000 as of last month. A number of large growing operations and storefront dispensaries have sprung up around the state.
Schweitzer said he fully expects that those wanting to repeal the medical marijuana law will try to get an initiative on the ballot in 2012. A Billings group favoring repeal obtained thousands of signatures in a week in 2010, but fell short.
Or, he said, medical marijuana advocates unhappy with the 2011 bill might try to put a bill on the ballot to undo some of the changes and put in their own ideas.
"In the meantime, we have a plan that will probably decrease the number of people that have access to medical cannabis," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, said later that he was "very pleased" to hear that Schweitzer will let SB423 become law.
"I think he's done the right thing," Essmann said. "I'll be looking forward to having the winding down of the storefronts and the large grow operations over the next couple of months, and legitimate patients can make a smooth transition to properly registered providers."
Essmann said he's glad that the storefronts will be closing soon and "reducing the air of legitimacy that encouraged the use by the youth in our state."
The Gazette State Bureau was unable to reach Tom Daubert, an author of the 2004 initiative and a leading advocate of the current law, for comment.