The Montana House on Friday passed a bill to allow people on probation or parole to use medical marijuana if they suffer from a debilitating medical condition.
The bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jade Bahr passed 60-39 as part of a flurry of bills the body moved to the Senate before the mid-session break.
Bahr argued on the House floor Thursday that Montana residents have voted in favor of allowing the use of medical marijuana and that people on probation or parole wouldn't be denied access to other prescribed treatments such as chemotherapy, insulin or dialysis.
Bahr said she couldn't decide if she was surprised or excited that the bill passed out of the House State Administration Committee on Tuesday.
"It coincides with the fact that a growing majority of Americans view marijuana as medicinal," she said.
Voters authorized medical marijuana use in Montana in 2004 and the industry exploded, leading to federal raids in 2011 and legislative efforts to tighten up regulations, including prohibiting people on parole or probation from holding medical marijuana cards.
Bahr argued during the Feb. 21 committee hearing that the more than 10,000 people on parole or probation in Montana "suffer from higher rates of almost every condition for which medical marijuana is routinely prescribed under state law."
Montana allows doctors to prescribe medical marijuana for people with cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, those who are admitted to hospice care or whose symptoms include severe and chronic pain that significantly interferes with daily activities; intractable nausea; an intractable seizure disorder; a central nervous disorder that causes chronic muscle spasms; post-traumatic stress disorder or painful peripheral neuropathy.
Opponents cited studies that suggested people who use marijuana were at a higher risk of becoming mentally ill or violent.
"I was really hoping this discussion didn't have to go down the road of debating whether this is medicine," Bahr said Thursday. "What we're discussing here is to allow those who are suffering from one of these conditions in the bill, access."
A probation and parole officer who attended the committee hearing didn't speak against the bill, Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau noted Thursday.
Michael Toppen with the Montana Public Interest Research Group told the committee the state shouldn't "continue to perpetuate a system in which pain relief is tied to criminal history."
Colorado in 2015 passed a law specifically allowing people on probation or parole to use medical marijuana. That same year the Arizona Supreme Court ruled people on probation or parole could use medical marijuana. In other states individuals have challenged prohibitions in court, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
Republican Rep. Ray Shaw told fellow lawmakers Thursday that he has always opposed illegal drug use, but after watching his brother in "horrendous pain" due to cancer and seeing the help and hope medical marijuana provided, he supported the bill.
"His attitude has changed, he's going to keep fighting now," Shaw said. "He was about to give up. So there's this other side of the coin that it brought him back, thank God."