HELENA - Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Wednesday vetoed the bill that would have repealed Montana's medical marijuana law, calling it draconian and contrary to the will of the state voters who approved it in 2004.
Schweitzer pointed to the 2004 medical marijuana ballot initiative, which 62 percent of Montana voters approved.
"There were many people out there who said there is a medicine out there that is not currently legal," Schweitzer said at a veto ceremony in the governor's reception room at the Capitol.
The medical marijuana bill was not among the bills the governor vetoed at a public ceremony before a large crowd outside the Capitol, where he used different-sized branding irons that said "VETO" to brand planks of wood to signal some other vetoes. (See related story.)
In an interview afterward, Schweitzer added, "I'm not a doctor, but we have heard from doctors and patients that this medicine helps them. Do we need 28,000 (medical marijuana) patients? I doubt it."
Schweitzer did say he hopes he can support one of the two remaining bills still alive - Senate Bill 423 and SB193 - to impose stricter regulations on the medical marijuana industry.
"There are a couple of bills that are still alive that would limit the number of patients, would limit the number of caregivers, would take the profit motive out of medical cannabis and would make sure that it doesn't end up on our streets," he said.
Schweitzer's veto of House Bill 161 by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, essentially kills the measure, which would have made Montana the first of the 15 states and the District of Columbia enacting medical marijuana laws to repeal it. Based on earlier House and Senate votes, it appears unlikely that HB161 can muster the two-thirds majorities in both chambers to override the governor's veto.
Milburn said he was disappointed but not surprised by the veto. He said he believes a growing majority of Montanans support repealing the law.
"With all the problems we've seen in the schools and in the communities, they're coming around more and more wanting just to get rid of this, so I think it's too bad that the governor was not in tune with what Montana wants, but it was expected," Milburn said.
Critics and even some supporters have said Montana's medical marijuana industry has careened out of control since the Obama administration's Justice Department announced in October 2009 that enforcement of federal marijuana laws would not be a priority in terms of medical marijuana users in states where it had been approved.
The number of medical marijuana cardholders in Montana skyrocketed from 3,921 in September 2009 to 29,948 as of last month. Within the past year, "cannabis caravans" went city to city to sign up hundreds of patients. In some cases, people saw doctors for less than 10 minutes and sometimes without seeing a doctor in person but over the Internet.
Last month, federal and state law enforcement officials raided medical pot growing operations in 13 communities as part of their investigation into marijuana trafficking and distribution. No charges have been filed yet.
One of the authors of the 2004 initiative, Tom Daubert of Patients and Families United, praised Schweitzer's veto.
"Patients are very grateful for this veto, but deeply worried about SB423, which we see as a ‘repeal in disguise' and whose proponents have made no secret of their goal to achieve a functional repeal," he said. "Polls consistently show that Montanans want the medical marijuana law fixed, with regulation that meets law enforcement and community needs, while also serving patients, rather than arbitrarily obstructing the fulfillment of this compassionate voter-adopted policy."
The main bill still in play is SB423 by Sen. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, which was completely rewritten by the House.
On Wednesday, Milburn and Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, appointed a House-Senate conference committee to work on the bill.
The House appointees are Reps. Tom Berry, R-Roundup; Cary Smith, R-Billings; and Diane Sands, D-Missoula; Senate appointees are Sens. Chas Vincent, R-Libby; Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula; and Essmann.
Milburn said he supports SB423 as his second choice to repeal, if it's tightened down further.
He said he wants the specific medical conditions for which medical marijuana can be recommended by a doctor to be detailed and restricted in the bill. He also believes that allowing a provider to have up to six marijuana plants to provide medical pot for a patient is excessive.
SB423 would impose strict new controls aimed at drastically limiting the number of people eligible for medical marijuana cards. Backers have said they want to cut the number of patients eligible for medical cards to less than 2,000.
It attempts to squeeze all money out of the current system by banning growing operations and dispensaries. Instead, it would allow one provider - the new term for caregiver - to grow marijuana for one patient without compensation. A provider could grow marijuana for up to three people, but two would have to be relatives, and the grower couldn't be paid for growing medical pot.
The other bill, SB193 by Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, has yet to pass in either house.
It seeks to impose restrictions on the medical marijuana industry, but is being rewritten.