medical marijuana

The week ahead could prove a fateful time for marijuana in the United States, and for the medical marijuana industry in Montana.

The new year has already brought a major change in the way marijuana is viewed by top federal enforcers. On Jan. 4, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a memo to all U.S. Attorneys rescinding, “effective immediately,” “previous nationwide guidance specific to marijuana enforcement” — in reference to Obama-era instructions to largely defer to marijuana laws in individual states.

Montana’s U.S. Attorney, Kurt Alme, has not said whether his office intends to do things any differently in light of the memo. He has said, however, that he intends to follow the laws set by Congress.

This week, the ball is in Congress’s court. The nation’s senators and representatives, including Montana’s delegation, must act decisively to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible, and reauthorize an important budget amendment that prohibits the use of federal funds to undermine state marijuana laws.

It’s simply the ethical thing to do. For many patients, marijuana is the medicine of last resort — the thing they try when all else has failed. Threatening to take away their last shred of hope is just cruel.

It’s also the practical thing to do from a legislative perspective. Various states have enacted and adjusted different laws with regard to marijuana, with no apparent catastrophic effects. What do the American people stand to gain by having our federal government beat back these advancements?

Through a series of steps forward and back, Montana too has taken significant strides to steady its medical marijuana industry, providing more certainty for both providers and patients, while leaving law enforcement free to pursue higher-priority crime.

Heading into 2018, the industry in Montana is more solid than ever, but a reversal in federal policy could jeopardize that progress.

Montana’s medical marijuana market has operated in an uncertain environment since its very beginning, in 2004, when more than 60 percent of voters approved a ballot initiative allowing its use. Just a few years later, the Montana Legislature passed a bill repealing the initiative; it was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Over the years, more successful legislative machinations placed restrictions on the state’s program and significantly reduced the total number of cardholders; at its height in mid-2011, just before a set of restrictions went into place, some 31,000 Montana residents were registered to use medical marijuana. By the end of 2016, only about 7,500 cardholders were still registered.

Then, in 2016, Montana voters approved another ballot initiative, backed by many in the medical marijuana industry, with the goal of holding the industry to more professional standards while making it easier for qualified patients to obtain quality medicine. Notably, post-traumatic stress disorder was added as a condition for which patients could obtain medical marijuana.

At last count, the number of cardholders enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program was approaching 22,000. This serves to show just how strongly Montana’s medical marijuana laws are tied to patient access.

In the most recent regular legislative session, in early 2017, Montana passed yet another law affecting medical marijuana. Senate Bill 333 mandates testing of medical marijuana and tracking of sales — and added a 4 percent tax to those sales.

Although this editorial board opposes the taxation of medicine, it is important to note that Montana collected nearly $400,000 in revenues in its first quarter; the next quarter deadline is Jan. 15. This July, the tax will drop to 2 percent. Presumably, the increasing amount of medical marijuana sales (more than 300 providers paid taxes on a total of $7.5 million in gross revenues) will make up for the tax rate decrease.

In any case, that's nothing to sneeze at in a time when state agencies are facing a bleak revenue outlook and painful budget cuts. The Montana Medical Marijuana Program is overseen by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which eats up the largest share of the state budget and consequently was dealt the largest share of budget cuts. The money collected through the new tax goes into a special fund to cover the costs of administrating the program.

Montana’s program is unique, yet not entirely different from those of the 29 other states that have passed medical marijuana laws. Of these, voters in eight states have approved recreational marijuana use; last week, Vermont’s elected officials voted to legalize recreational marijuana as well.

Federal laws make no distinction between medical and recreational use. Montanans should be allowed to continue to draw these and any other relevant distinctions for ourselves, without federal interference. State and federal agents will still be able, of course, to charge and arrest anyone operating outside the bounds of Montana law.

Congress is expected to vote on a federal budget by this Friday, Jan. 19, when the current continuing budget resolution will expire. Among other important considerations, an annual provision known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment is up for re-authorization. This is the provision that stops federal agencies from spending federal money to pursue cases considered legal under state marijuana laws.

As a congressional directive, the amendment provides much-needed guidance to the nation’s attorneys general on whether to pursue marijuana cases.

Amid what is certain to be a turbulent atmosphere for fiscal 2018 budget discussions, Montana’s U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, have a duty to grant this guidance. Even if our delegation has qualms about marijuana, this is a states' rights issue they should embrace. 

They must voice their clear intention to support the re-authorization of this amendment — and continued support for Montana’s medical marijuana laws.

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