A legislative panel Monday hashed out a draft rewrite of Montana's medical-marijuana laws, with an eye toward tightening regulations on who can grow, distribute and use the drug.
But even if the bipartisan committee ends up agreeing on the draft bill, its members said it would be just one step in a lengthy process - and that many more proposals are likely to come before the 2011 Legislature.
Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, who chairs the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, said she expects bills to be introduced next year to repeal medical marijuana, put it back before the voters again or perhaps legalize the drug entirely and "tax the heck out it."
"Hopefully this will be the bill that's somewhere in the middle," she said of the measure debated Monday by the committee.
The eight-member, bipartisan panel is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to draft a bill that tightens many aspects of Montana's medical-marijuana program, which was placed into law by voters in 2004.
The committee began work on the rewrite this year, in the face of exploding numbers of people obtaining medical-marijuana cards and an accompanying boom in marijuana-related suppliers, which are loosely regulated under current law.
The number of Montanans holding medical-marijuana cards has ballooned from about 7,300 people at the first of the year to 19,635 through the end of June.
Any draft bill endorsed by the panel would be introduced at the 2011 Legislature, which convenes next January, but wouldn't become law without legislative approval and the signature of the governor.
"This bill is going to be changed a lot before it passes the next session," said Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor, and a member of the committee.
On Monday, the panel generally agreed the bill should include the following changes to state medical-marijuana law:
- Medical-marijuana patients would have to be residents of Montana. Current law contains no such requirement.
- Those obtaining a medical-marijuana card to treat "chronic pain" must have a recommendation from at least two physicians, rather than one. Currently, nearly 70 percent of cardholders list chronic pain as the malady for which they are using marijuana.
- Medical-marijuana "caregivers," who currently can have an unlimited number of patients for which they provide and grow marijuana, would be limited to five patients, and reclassified as "providers."
- New categories of marijuana "dispensaries" and "growers" would be created. They would be licensed by the state and could grow marijuana tied to specific patients that sign up with a dispensary or provider. They would have to provide quarterly reports on their amount of customers and marijuana grown and distributed.
- Licensed providers, growers and dispensaries would have to undergo a fingerprinting and background check by state officials. Convicted felons could not get a license and people on parole or probation with the Department of Corrections could not get a medical-marijuana card.
Several medical-marijuana users and business people testified Monday before the committee, asking it not to unduly restrict what's become a legitimate business and health tool for many Montanans.
"It sounds so many times ... that we're looking for ways to box this in completely and make it go away," said Rick Rosio of Montana Pain Management in Missoula. "Why not fix it in a common-sense application? Please keep the patients first in mind."