HELENA - An interim legislative subcommittee tentatively agreed Thursday on some proposals to restrict Montana's fast-growing medical marijuana industry.
The Medical Marijuana Subcommittee spent the day informally voting on various proposals that will be incorporated in draft legislation to be considered by the Legislature's Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Aug. 23-24. The 2011 Legislature ultimately will decide on the issue.
Afterward, the chairwoman, Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, said she believed two of the subcommittee's actions were especially significant - the call for a new dispensary system and restrictions to prevent physicians being financially involved with medical marijuana caregivers or dispensaries.
The committee voted to recommend that Montana become a "dispensary system" through which people with medical marijuana cards could buy marijuana through dispensaries, or stores, that are designated as their caregivers. Legislators voted to use the recently enacted Colorado law as their model.
Colorado, Maine, New Mexico and Rhode Island recently adopted dispensary systems that require all principal officers, board members, managers and employees to undergo background checks and be licensed by the state, according to a report by legislative researcher Sue O'Connell.
Under the proposal, the state would be allowed to inspect the facilities or any growing operations and examine sales records. The panel tentatively approved having dispensaries regulated by the state Revenue Department as the state agency does with establishments that sell alcoholic beverages.
As of June, nearly 20,000 Montanans had medical marijuana cards, with the number soaring since last fall after the U.S. Justice Department directed law enforcement agents not to arrest medical marijuana users and suppliers as long as they follow state laws.
Sands said one provider predicted that number could escalate to 50,000 Montanans by the time the Legislature convenes in January. She raised the specter that 100,000 people, more than 10 percent of the Montana population, might qualify for medical marijuana cards if they claim "severe chronic pain," one of the criteria needed to obtain the card.
Rep. Penny Morgan, R-Billings, noted that a staff report showed that 2 percent of Montana's population has medical marijuana cards, compared with 0.13 percent in Alaska, 0.62 percent in Colorado, 0.95 percent in Oregon and 0.03 percent in California.
"Why it is that people in Montana are so disabled that they need this so much?" she asked. "In my opinion, there are a lot of people getting cards who shouldn't have them. This is not normal with the rest of the country."
The subcommittee would still allow for caregivers, to be called providers, who grow or buy marijuana. They would be able to sell it to an as yet undermined number of patients.
Sen. Rick Laible, R-Victor, proposed limiting one caregiver to five patients, but later dropped the idea. The panel voiced support for some sort of a tiered system for caregivers, such as limiting a caregiver to three and fewer patients, from three to five patients and so on, with stiffer regulation the more patients a caregiver saw, but it didn't settle on a number yet.
Laible supported the dispensary system idea, saying: "We won't need as many caregivers except for people who are disabled."
Some caregivers in the audience testified they wouldn't be able to survive financially if they could serve only five patients and would have to get additional jobs.
"If you limit caregivers to five patients, you will have more caregivers, not less," said Valerie Sigler. "This (growing marijuana) is not an easy thing to do. It takes quite an investment. It takes time. It's a full-time job."
Rick Rosio, owner of Montana Pain Management of Missoula, opposed limiting the number of patients for caregivers. He said his business now provides marijuana to 100 patients a day, day in and day out, all across the state.
"To impose a five-patient limit will kill almost every operation in the state," said Chris Lindsay.
Another key change recommended by the panel would prohibit a doctor from being paid or soliciting pay from caregivers and dispensaries. It also would be illegal for a physician from holding an economic interest in a business if that doctor certifies the "debilitating medical condition" that allows a patient to participate in a medical marijuana program.
Sands said statistics show that many physicians have authorized medical marijuana cards for a small number of patients. However, she said there are a handful of doctors who have approved medical marijuana cards for many, many people.
Imposing these financial restrictions on physicians should stop this practice, she said.
Afterward, Bill Boast, a Kalispell caregiver, said he would probably oppose the bill as written for a number of reasons.
"They don't limit a pharmacy as they have my clients," he said. "Wal-Mart can sell Oxycontin to as many people (with prescriptions) as they want."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.