House panel overhauls medical-marijuana bill; supporters not ple - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

House panel overhauls medical-marijuana bill; supporters not pleased

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MTN News file photo MTN News file photo
Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena

The session’s major medical marijuana bill, to set up a new regulatory framework for the industry in Montana, got an overhaul Monday in a House committee -- and supporters of the original bill aren’t pleased.

“Once the bill got to this committee, they amended it to smithereens,” Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, the bill’s sponsor, told MTN News. “It goes against the principles of the bill, for the most part.”

Caferro said Senate Bill 333 is meant to create a tightly regulated medical-marijuana industry in Montana that will provide the drug to approved patients and comply with federal directives.

It requires testing of marijuana products, sets up licensure of providers, dispensaries and testing labs, tracks marijuana from seed to sales, and taxes medical-marijuana providers to help fund the tracking system and other regulatory elements.

The House Taxation Committee, however, attached 20 amendments to the bill in a marathon session Monday morning, including one that exempts smaller marijuana providers from the testing requirement.   

The panel also changed the tax from a percentage of providers’ gross sales to a $25 per-patient fee, paid four times year.  

“When you go back to look at the goals of the bill – (a system that is) safe, contained, functional and transparent – what this committee did to the bill is not transparent, it’s not functional, it’s not safe and not contained.”

The committee approved the bill on a 14-6 vote, sending it to the House floor this week.

Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, the chair of the panel, said he expects the measure to end up in a House-Senate conference committee, which would try to hammer out a compromise.

“This (bill) has probably got some more work to be done, because, obviously the (Senate and House) versions differ,” he said. “But they do not differ as significantly as the House and Senate were divided six year ago. I’m thankful for that.”

Essmann’s comment referred to a 2011 bill that he sponsored and that led ultimately to the changes being proposed now for Montana’s medical marijuana program, which has about 13,000 patients approved to use the drug.

The 2011 bill placed severe restrictions on medical marijuana, after the user population exploded in 2009 and 2010, growing from a couple of thousand to more than 30,000.

Those restrictions were challenged in state court, but it took six years to resolve the case, leading to a Montana Supreme Court ruling that invoked the restrictions last August.

Medical-marijuana supporters had responded with a ballot measure that undid some of the harshest restrictions, such as limiting providers to three patients, and voters approved Initiative 182 last November.

Now, the industry is behind SB333 in its original form, to lay down ground rules for providers and users.

Caferro said because marijuana is a controlled substance under federal law, states allowing medical marijuana need a strongly regulated system.

“The (U.S.) Department of Justice sent all state that have medical marijuana a letter saying, that, if you’re going to have a medical marijuana program, it has to be regulated,” she said.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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