HELENA - The House Human Services Committee voted 10-5 Friday to repeal Montana's 2004 voter-passed initiative legalizing the use of medical marijuana.
All of the committee's 10 Republicans voted for House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade. All five Democrats opposed it.
The bill now heads to the House floor for debate on Tuesday, barring any last-minute scheduling changes.
"I am pleased to see the Human Services Committee supports this incredibly important bill, and I look forward to it passing the full House of Representatives next week," Milburn said afterward.
The sharply divided committee debated the bill for less than half an hour before voting.
"This is an initiative that has gone horribly wrong," said Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings. "This is not what the people voted for."
Smith said he was appointed to serve on an ad hoc committee by the Billings Council to deal with the consequences of the explosive growth of medical marijuana in recent years. The city has faced problems with medical marijuana storefronts located in front of schools and churches, he said.
"We need to turn this thing off and start over," Smith said.
As of December, 2010, more than 27,000 people in Montana have been authorized to use medical marijuana, an increase of 20,000 cardholders from December 2009.
But Rep. Pat Noonan, D- Butte, opposed the bill.
"I have a rule that I don't vote against anything that's voted on by the voters," he said. "If we really want to repeal, I think the voters should do it."
In 2004, Montana voters passed the initiative by 62 percent to 38 percent.
Rep. Michael More, R-Gallatin Gateway, acknowledged he had voted for the measure, thinking it would be just to help people with debilitating diseases.
"There was an element of wishful naiveté on the part of those who voted this in," More said.
But the state has instead had contend to with far-reaching consequences of the initiative, including what More called "an element of licentiousness in the culture" under the law.
Rep. Ellie Hill, D-Missoula, criticized the repeal bill, saying that opponents of HB161 outnumbered its supporters by 3-to-1 at the hearing earlier this week.
"There was a lot of talk that this has increased crime rates," she said. "I didn't hear anyone with evidence."
Milburn doesn't accept the fact that marijuana works as medicine, she said, despite legislators hearing from people, including some in wheelchairs, testifying that it has helped treat their health problems.
The Missoula lawmaker said she has heard from thousands of people who support medical marijuana but want the Legislature to enact some sideboards to the bill. She urged lawmakers to instead consider the bipartisan measure approved by a legislative interim committee, House Bill 68, by Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, which would add regulations.
"They don't think the current law is what people voted for," she said. "They voted for safe access to medical marijuana. They want us to put some training wheels on."
Afterward, Tom Daubert, an author and campaign manager for the 2004 initiative, criticized the committee action.
"For legislators who rejected proposals to improve the law in '07 and '09 to now rush to repeal rather than to fix a compassionate policy passed by the people in record numbers is a tragedy for patients and an insult to the Montana values of freedom and democracy," said Daubert, who heads a group called Patients & Families United. "Consensus solutions to the law's problems exist. But redefining thousands of suffering Montanans as criminals is not a solution, nor is it morally justifiable."
Besides Sands' HB68, there is another major medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 154 by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, that would also set up state licensing and regulation of the medical marijuana businesses. Sands' bill would impose licensing fees to pay for the regulation, while Lewis' measure would levy a tax.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.