March 29, 2011

Montana Medical Marijuana Debate Stalled, Leaving Bill’s Fate Uncertain

March 29, 2011
Medical Marijuana

By Charles S. Johnson from The Billings Gazette

HELENA — The fate of the Legislature’s lone surviving bill to impose stricter regulations on Montana’s booming medical marijuana industry suddenly was cast into doubt Tuesday.

The Senate was forced to postpone its scheduled debate Tuesday on Senate Bill 423, by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, so the bill will come to the floor Wednesday.

The delay will force the Senate to obtain a supermajority vote — or 34 of the 50 senators’ votes — instead of a simple majority of 26 votes to pass Senate Bill 423 to send it to the House by Wednesday’s deadline.

The Senate needs only a simple majority Wednesday for the first vote on SB423. However, it will have to waive its rules and obtain a supermajority vote to take the second vote on the same day. The two votes are supposed to be taken on separate days.

Suddenly, 17 senators from the Democratic minority, or any combination of SB423 opponents, can stop it from reaching the House on time, effectively killing the bill. Republicans have a 28-22 margin over Democrats in the Senate.

If that happens, the Legislature likely will come up empty-handed in imposing strict regulations on a medical marijuana industry that critics contend has spun out of control in Montana. This was considered one of the major issues facing the Legislature.

Or it might give Senate Democrats some leverage to negotiate a deal with Republicans on other legislation.

The reasons for the complications involve both legislative rules and deadlines.

First, the Senate has not yet received a report known as a “fiscal note” from the governor’s budget office outlining the financial impacts of SB423. By rule, the Senate cannot debate and vote on a bill requiring a fiscal note if it hasn’t received the note.

The fiscal note is due six days after it was requested. That deadline is Wednesday.

Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, told a Senate Republican caucus that state Budget Director David Ewer had assured him that the fiscal note would be delivered Wednesday.

The Senate could have voted on SB423 on Tuesday without the fiscal note, but that also would have required a supermajority vote to suspend the rules.

Instead, the Senate Republican leaders decided to postpone the vote by a day and take both the second- and third-reading votes in the same day, requiring rules to be waived.

Wednesday is the deadline for the Senate to send all of its revenue bills to the House, and vice versa. If the Senate doesn’t send SB423 to the House by Wednesday, the bill automatically dies.

SB423 is classified as a revenue bill because it would charge licensing fees for those growing and delivering medical marijuana.

The fate of SB423 was uncertain.

Some senators prefer an outright repeal of the state’s voter-passed 2004 law that legalized medical marijuana for medical purposes. House Bill 161, by Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, passed the House, but deadlocked in the Senate Judiciary Committee 6-6.

That led Judiciary Chairman Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, to appoint a three-member subcommittee to quickly draft an alternative regulation bill.

The new bill would repeal the medical marijuana law as of July 1, as Milburn’s bill did.

Essmann’s bill, however, then sets up a plan to impose strict regulations on the medical marijuana industry, with the expressed goal of making it much harder for people with severe and chronic pain to obtain medical marijuana cards.

The only other major bill remaining is HB175, by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, which would ask voters in 2012 whether they want to repeal or keep the medical marijuana law.

At a Democratic caucus Tuesday, senators appeared divided over Essmann’s bill.

Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, said he voted against the bill in the Judiciary Committee because of the “whacky provision” assigning the PSC the licensing duties.

Another Judiciary member, Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls, said that while the bill isn’t perfect, it’s the only bill remaining to regulate the industry. He said Montanans are “a heck of a lot more likely” to vote against the repeal if the Legislature puts some regulations in place.

Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, who served on the subcommittee, said Gov. Brian Schweitzer can issue an amendatory veto to fix the bill if there are still problems after it passes.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said she doesn’t think it would be bad to have the repeal referendum on the ballot in 2012.

“I don’t think we should underestimate this voting bloc,” she said of medical marijuana users.

Original article from Billings Gazette



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