HELENA — The medical marijuana industry made it clear Tuesday it will buck an overhaul of the 2004 voter-approved initiative that made medical marijuana legal and that led to a backlash of concern amid skyrocketing enrollment.
A legislative committee voted Tuesday to send the overhaul — a long list of proposed changes packaged into three bills — to the 2011 Legislature.
The hard look was prompted by a jump from a few thousand medical marijuana cards last year to 23,500 medical marijuana cards at the end of July.
The overhaul approved by the Children, Families, Health and Human Services interim committee aims to make it harder to get a card without good reason, make it harder to grow and sell medical marijuana, and make it easier to track and regulate the industry.
It faces a long road.
The measure must clear each chamber of the Legislature — facing multiple committee hearings along the way — before heading to the desk of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has said some new rules are needed.
By the time it gets to Schweitzer, the overhaul most certainly will have undergone many changes. Even some lawmakers on the interim panel wanted stiffer measures, while others worried it went too far.
"I think it is the best work we can do at this point, and I also think it will be revised in the session," said Rep. Diane Sands, a Missoula Democrat leading the interim committee.
But medical marijuana business owners are worried.
They argue the measure is far too restrictive and makes it harder for people who need the product to obtain it.
They say a proposed requirement that those seeking a card for the most common condition allowed — chronic pain — is unduly onerous and expensive for rural medical marijuana users. Others argue letting employers ban usage in certain jobs opens the door to discrimination.
The business owners — some of whom were part of an early round-table discussion that led to the draft committee bill — said the restrictions on sellers will run a lot of them out of business. They also said limits on the amount of marijuana allowed will leave some patients short of their needed supply.
The business owners say marijuana is being treated unfairly, when it is easier to get prescription narcotics that, they argue, do far more damage and are more addictive.
"This has created a huge business success and huge economic growth in the state," said Jason Christ, whose Montana Caregivers Network made a big splash with its traveling "cannabis caravan" that signed up masses of patients. "I think these bill drafts simply don't make sense and don't reflect the will of the people."