HELENA - A panel of lawmakers is starting to "get into the weeds," as one state senator put it, and are hoping to write first drafts of possible new laws by the end of the summer addressing Montana's wide-open medical marijuana scene.
We have to have a firm dividing line between what's legal and what's illegal, Powell County Attorney Lewis Smith told the interim Children, Families, Health and Human Services Committee at a meeting Monday.
The bipartisan group has been studying the state's medical marijuana regulatory scheme. Rep. Diane Sands, D-Missoula, the chairwoman of the committee, said she expected the group to have bills for discussion by their next meeting in August.
Sands appointed a smaller subcommittee of the group to start working on the language of the bills, which will be recommended to the 2011 Legislature in January.
Their first meeting is scheduled for Tuesday morning.
Many of the potential solutions deal with licensing medical marijuana caregivers and stepping up regulation in the industry, which was created after 62 percent of Montanans voted in 2004 to legalize marijuana for medical uses.
Smith wasn't alone in his call for stiffer regulations. A long line of people addressed the committee Monday, most of them involved in the medical marijuana community and most of them urging for laws that would professionalize the industry.
Yet, many also called upon lawmakers not to forget the sick and suffering who say medical marijuana helps them.
I have patients who I don't know how I am going to get out of the city limits, said Pam Birchard, a Great Falls medical marijuana caregiver with a small practice.
Great Falls has a local ban on medical marijuana caregivers. Birchard said after the meeting she has been transporting her patients out of the city limits to give them their marijuana. Two of her patients are very ill and housebound.
She is at home to die, Birchard told the Missoulian State Bureau of one patient. The patient experiences pain relief with medical marijuana, and Birchard said she worried how the woman would handle what might be her final days.
Others, like Rick Rosio, president of Montana Pain Management in Missoula, another medical marijuana clinic, encouraged lawmakers to please take the time to understand who it is you're regulating.
Rosio told lawmakers that some medical marijuana growers and caregivers are moving ahead with their own internal certification standards.
Eventually, this will be very, very tightly regulated and we welcome it, he said.
Also on display at the meeting was the kind of cultural divide within the medical marijuana community, specifically between two of its most prominent members: Tom Daubert of Helena, the man behind the 2004 citizens initiative that legalized medical marijuana, and Jason Christ, founder of Montana Caregivers Network, which runs traveling medical marijuana clinics where hundreds of people can get medical marijuana cards in a single day, often with little time with a doctor.
Daubert told lawmakers that Christ, who was standing right next to him, was exploiting (the law's) problems and loopholes, registering thousands in one day.
Daubert has long supported tighter regulations of the industry to eliminate those kinds of clinics and return it to what he said was the original intent of the law.
Christ, who is also a medical marijuana patient, encouraged lawmakers to tread lightly into stiffer regulations, even as he said more government involvement is needed in the industry.
It's going to take an army of people to regulate this, he said.
Christ, who said he has two intestinal disorders that make sitting down uncomfortable, particularly praised Montana's law that allows medical marijuana users to smoke up in public.
After this speech, I am going to go outside and smoke a bowl, he told the panel.
Shortly after, he produced a large, glass pipe and left to do just that.
Jason Christ, of Missoula, smokes from his water pipe
in front of the Montana Capitol. Christ, operations manager
of the Montana Caregivers Network,
was in Helena Monday to urge lawmakers to
adopt modest regulation over medical marijuana.
Christ suffers from two intestinal disorders
and is legally allowed to use marijuana
as medicine under Montana's 2004
voter-passed medical marijuana program.
By JENNIFER McKEE
June 28, 2010