What ever would Montana do without the power of hindsight channeled through Colorado? How to (or how not to) plan for growth; how to protect open space; how to combat beetle-killed trees.
Now, apparently, how to regulate medical marijuana.
All facetiousness aside, Montana has a good opportunity to learn a thing or two (read “swipe”) about reining in medicinal cannabis thanks to two bills signed into law Monday by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.
The bills, House Bill 1284 and Senate Bill 109, were two of the most prolific bills to pass through the state Legislature this year. In short, the legislation imposes complicated licensing requirements on medical-marijuana dispensaries and cracks down on unscrupulous doctors indiscriminantly handing out marijuana prescriptions.
Sound familiar? They’re two of the biggest unresolved problems with Montana’s medical marijuana law, passed in 2004 but which has blown up of late thanks, in part, to the Obama administration’s admission it won’t seek federal prosecution for states with medicinal cannabis laws.
As Montana’s legislators study possible fixes to our state’s medical marijuana law, they should look no further than Colorado, which passed its own initiative in 2000, but — until now — has experienced the same fast food-style marijuana-prescription operations that critics say have swelled Montana’s registry with illegitimate patients.
In the year after Montana’s initiative passed, 176 people were issued “green” cards, according to a study prepared for the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee in April. In June 2008, the number of cardholders reached 1,000. By December 2009, the number had jumped to 7,339.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has issued nearly 5,000 more cards in the past two months, with almost 15,000 now. About 2,800 people are registered to provide marijuana on behalf of one or more patients.
The Colorado laws require patients to have a “bona fide” relationship with the doctors who recommend marijuana for them, and will require doctors to have completed a full assessment of the patient’s medical history and be available for follow-up care. They also prevent doctors from getting paid by dispensaries to write prescriptions.
The laws also create strict new regulations for medical marijuana businesses, requiring dispensaries to be licensed both at the state and local levels and allowing local governments — or voters — to ban dispensaries and large-scale growing operations in their communities. Felony or drug-related felony offenders are also barred from operating a dispensary, as are people who have lived in Colorado for fewer than two years. All dispensaries are required to grow at least 70 percent of the marijuana they sell.
Finally, the laws make a distinction between dispensaries and “primary caregivers,” who can serve no more than five patients with six plants apiece. Primary caregivers are protected under Colorado’s constitution, but dispensaries are not.
While some medical marijuana proponents in Colorado say the laws go too far, others believe they don’t go far enough. Concession on both ends of the spectrum is what Montana needs. Whether Colorado’s laws will be litigated into stalemate is indefinite, but for now, it’s a good starting point for the discussion right here at home as we delicately balance respecting the will of the voters versus protecting public safety.