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Montana weighs options on medical marijuana

HELENA – As Montanans flooded the Capitol on Friday to again testify on a proposed repeal of medical marijuana, lawmakers were as uncertain as ever on the fate of legislative action on the law.

A general sentiment prevails in the Legislature that something must be done to reel in a medical marijuana industry that many say has spiraled beyond the intent of the law approved in a 2004 voter initiative. An abundance of pot shops, drug use among youth and police concern over organized crime has many legislators worried that the state’s rugged big sky reputation is being replaced by a blooming pot industry.

Three medical marijuana options are now poised before lawmakers: Outright repeal, a proposition viewed with skepticism by some lawmakers who say there is a legitimate need for some patients to use marijuana. Reform and regulation, a difficult task given the scope of the marijuana industry and uncertainty of how to fine-tune legislation. Inaction, an option favored by few but a looming possibility given the difficulty of following through on the other two actions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is most likely where the face of legislative action on medical marijuana will reveal itself. Many House or Senate bills dealing with medical marijuana must eventually pass through the 12-person body that seems to be closely divided between supporters of repeal and reform.

Committee Chairperson Sen. Terry Murphy said he favors a reform of the initiative because of what he said is a medical need for the drug that can’t be filled by anything else.

A number of measures for reform have survived through the first half of the legislative session. Several bills propose making it more difficult for minors to access marijuana, adding fees for marijuana card holders and increasing local authority over marijuana use.

Although Murphy wants reform, he said he sees few workable reform bills in front of the Legislature currently.

“None of the bills I’ve seen individually seem to do the whole job that we would like to do – they are either overregulating or not covering every area that needs to be covered,” said the Cardwell Republican.

Murphy said he would want to see his committee pull together a reform measure that incorporates the best of all the regulation measures in the Legislature.

The question is whether amending and resurrecting such a Frankenstein-like blend is a feasible option to get through both chambers.

“At this point we are not going to get a bill that is tight enough to satisfy me, and if we did we wouldn’t get it through the House,” said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, who initially supported reform.

The most probable measure for repeal is Republican House Speaker Mike Milburn’s proposal that drew state officials, doctors, patients and teachers to line up for hours Friday to speak for a minute or two on his full repeal of medical marijuana bill.

Milburn said the ballot initiative that created the medical marijuana program “tugged on voters’ heartstrings but it failed on almost all accounts.”


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