Voters to decide on marijuana initiative

Medical marijuana is the subject of one of this year’s most controversial ballot initiatives.

Initiative Referendum 124 would repeal Senate Bill (SB) 423, which the Montana Legislature passed to replace the Montana Medical Marijuana Act, or Initiative 148. This initiative was approved by 62 percent of voters in 2004.

I-148 allowed patients with debilitating illnesses or chronic pain to use marijuana with a recommendation from a physician. However, apparent abuse of the system influenced legislators to propose and pass Senate Bill (SB) 423 in 2011.

SB 423 limits providers to serving three patients, does not allow providers to receive anything of value for their medication, makes advertising for marijuana illegal, establishes specific criteria for “chronic pain” and establishes a review process for any physician who issues more than 25 marijuana prescriptions a year.

Jeff Essman, Republican Senate Majority Leader of the Montana Legislature and proposer of the bill, said patients can still receive their medication under SB 423. However, proponents of medical marijuana such as Misty Carey, owner of the Bozeman marijuana dispensary Kannakare, have come to call SB 423 the “Black Market Bill.”

“Those 25,000 patients that are no longer in the registry are merely buying their stuff on the black market,” Carey said.

In an interview with Lee Newspapers State Bureau, Gov. Brian Schweitzer called the bill “unconstitutional” for allowing officers to search a patient’s home without notice. “I will guar-an-dang-tee you there will be more illegal marijuana [that] makes it to the alley under this proposal than we currently have,” he said, “because now you’re going to have 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 people growing their own.”

Essman says taking the profit motive out of the cannabis industry will help curb abuse of the drug, but Carey says there is little profit in the industry. “I don’t know too many people who have made much of a profit on this,” she said. “What we’re asking to be able to do is recoup our costs.”

“If SB 423 stood…I would basically have to grow for two other patients and give it to them for free,” said Rick Whatman of Around the Clock Cannabis. “How do you take a $4,000 overhead a month…and then give it to somebody for free?”

Essman asserted, “Not every business model succeeds…particularly one that still remains illegal under federal law. The Montana Legislature cannot protect people from taking unwise risks.”

Whatman countered that the Montana Legislature took away the people’s right to vote when they signed SB 423 into law. “If they can just take away what the will of the people voted in,” he said, “why can’t they take away anything else?”

Essman believes the “grow-your-own” model was what advocates of I-148 were after in the first place. “If you look at the voter information pamphlet for the 2004 initiative, they spoke only about a grow-your-own situation,” he said.

The voter information pamphlet of 2004 stated, “A patient or the patient’s caregiver could register to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana.”  Writers of the original initiative knew there were patients unable to grow their own medicine and made an accommodation for them.

“How are they going to be able to grow it?” Whatman asked about those who are sick. “It’s not as easy as sticking a seed in the ground and watering it.”

“If people wish to put a legalization measure on the Montana ballot, they are free to do so,”  Essman said. Some Montanans tried to do so this year, and though Gallatin county reached the minimum number of signatures, petitioners could not duplicate those numbers statewide.

On the ballot, IR 124 will give voters the option of voting “FOR” SB 423 to keep it in place, or “AGAINST” SB 423 to restore the provisions of I-148.