As state Sen. Ron Erickson closed out Friday’s hearing on his bill to give Montana medical-marijuana patients better access to the drug, he recalled the tale of the Good Samaritan, who helped a stranger on the road.
“The good neighbor is the one who showed compassion for a stranger,” Erickson told the House Human Services Committee. “Compassion is not ‘conservative,’ compassion is not ‘liberal.’ Compassion is what we show to our neighbors. The way to do that is to pass this bill.”
The Missoula Democrat’s close evoked a rousing cheer from bill supporters gathered in the Capitol hall outside the hearing room.
Yet Senate Bill 326, which has passed the Senate, faced stern questioning from some members of the committee, its first stop in the Montana House.
SB326 would make changes in Montana’s medical-marijuana program, which was enacted by a 2004 ballot initiative that passed with 62 percent of the voters in favor.
It increases the amount of marijuana that a patient or “caregiver” can possess, from one ounce to three ounces. It also allows patients to get the drug from more than one licensed caregiver, allows licensed growers to have six “mature” plants rather than just six plants, and adds some additional medical conditions or diseases that can be legally treated by marijuana, such as Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In often emotional testimony Friday, patients said the changes are needed because they often run out of the drug or have difficulty obtaining it under the current restrictions.
Ken Lindeman of Belt, a dwarf with multiple birth defects, said his health has deteriorated as he’s aged; he suffers from scoliosis of the spine and other ailments. He said he took six painkillers a day before trying medical marijuana.
“This plant does miracles for people,” he said. “It’s just completely changed the style of my life. God put marijuana on this planet. He didn’t put man-made pills (here). So I think if the plant that God put on this planet does what I need to get through the daily function of life, I think that’s what I need to do.”
Opposition for the bill came primarily from law enforcement, which said they worried that increasing the amount of marijuana possessed by growers and patients might lead to illegal activity.
Craig Campbell, a Helena police detective and executive director of the Montana Narcotics Officers Organization, said the group’s members already see people growing more marijuana than they’re supposed to under the law and selling the drug to nonpatients.
However, under questioning, Campbell said he knew of no arrests of a caregiver or patient in the seven-county area surrounding Helena.
Committee members questioned the bill’s provision allowing the state to perform “inventory audits” of caregivers growing marijuana for more than five patients. The bill says the Department of Public Health and Human Services must draw up rules that allow for a “reasonable notice” before the inspections.
Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, asked why the audits shouldn’t be unannounced, like at restaurants or other businesses that can be subject to surprise inspections.
Erickson said caregiver operations are spread out all over the state, and that he thought it was reasonable to give some notice to make sure they would at least be home when inspectors arrived.
Committee members also had questions about how much growers charge patients for the marijuana, and whether they might be making money off the operation.
Christopher Williams, a patient and grower from Bozeman, said he charged patients as much as $275 per ounce, but that some patients weren’t charged at all, because they are debilitated and without much income. He said his operation is nonprofit and designed to break even.
By MIKE DENNISON