HELENA - A Senate committee deadlocked Monday on a bill that would repeal Montana's medical marijuana law, but backers said they intend to blast the bill out of committee onto the Senate floor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee tied on a 6-6 motion to pass House Bill 161, by House Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, and send it to the Senate floor for debate. The House had approved the repeal bill earlier this session.
After the bill stalled, committee Chairman Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, named a three-member committee to come up with "a regulatory alternative" to a repeal bill.
Montanans voted by 62 percent to 32 percent in 2004 to legalize the use of marijuana for certain medical purposes.
Milburn, who watched the committee action, said he was disappointed but not surprised.
"It's kind of what we expected, but it's not over," he said. "We'll see what we can do on the full Senate floor. I hope I have the votes. It's looking positive."
Named to the committee were Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, as chairman and Sens. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, and Chas Vincent, R-Libby.
Five Republicans joined by Democratic Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman, voted in favor of HB161.
Four Democratic senators, joined by Republicans Vincent and Murphy, voted against the bill.
During the committee's discussion, Jent said, "We really bungled this. Our citizens passed an initiative, but we let this get out of hand."
"This law has been an embarrassment for this state," Jent added. "It's an utter embarrassment. It's time for this to go."
Essmann agreed, but he put the blame on the Schweitzer administration. He said the administration had failed to act as the medical marijuana industry spun out of control here.
"It's not the Legislature that has punted," he said. "It's the executive branch that has punted. They had the authority to stop this mess from happening, and they failed to do it."
Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, called the committee action one of the most important votes of the session.
"What really appalls me is that the old State Nursery here in town is used to grow medical marijuana," he said. "The money is taking over the process. We need to say enough is enough and if we need to start over, we need to start over."
The committee discussion took place around the same time that the former State Nursery and some other medical marijuana growing businesses were raided by law enforcement officials Monday.
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Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said Montana voters were deceived.
"It was sold to the public as an older person dying of cancer being allowed some relief, and it ended up with a 22-year-old smoking on the corner," he said. "That's not what people voted for."
However, some other senators argued against repeal.
"I believe repeal is about defying the will of Montana voters," said Sen. Anders Blewett, D-Great Falls. "It's about taking medications away from seriously ill patients."
Vincent said Montana has "a huge mess on our hands," with plenty of residents angry that what they voted on in 2004 turned out to be much different than what they thought.
He said he talked to a 23-year-old woman with epilepsy who had to take powerful prescription drugs that prevented her from being "a normal functioning person." Now, she is able to live a normal life by making butter with a marijuana tincture that she puts on her bread and pancakes in the morning and has no side effects, Vincent said.
Vincent said he couldn't look in the woman's face and tell her she had to go back to what she had done before. Instead, he said the committee can fix the law and impose some strict regulations.
Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, said the Legislature deserves the blame for failing to do anything about medical marijuana in 2007 and 2009, when there were slightly more total Republicans than Democrats.
He called for "taking the very best ideas and creating one bill, a very strong regulatory bill."
In opposing repeal, Murphy said, "I know some people who are getting some real relief from chronic conditions from it that they weren't getting from the most expensive medicines on the market."
Afterward, Tom Daubert, who helped write medical marijuana initiative and is a leading spokesman for the industry, voiced disappointment that the repeal bill wasn't tabled.
"This issue is far from over," he said.
Daubert said he remains "terrified" for medical marijuana patients whose comfort remains at risk "because the effort to repeal is far from over."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066.