The Nation's Worst "Pretend" Marijuana Law Would Defy Montana Voters

When Montanans legalized medical marijuana in 2004, they did so by a larger majority than Californians had a few years earlier.  More Montanans wanted to protect patients who receive medical benefits from marijuana than voted for President Bush or any other statewide candidate that year.

Today, along with broad agreement that there have been problems and that the law’s loopholes and gray areas require fixing and regulation, polls consistently show that Montana voters still strongly support the principle of medical marijuana rights.  One by Public Policy Polling several months ago found only 20% of voters want to repeal the law, and 76% support either new regulation or no changes at all.  A Mason-Dixon poll conducted more recently obtained similar results, showing that a whopping 87% supports either new regulation or no change in the current law.

Yet Republican leaders of the Montana Legislature, who have the votes to pass nearly anything, have insisted only on trying to repeal the law rather than fix it.  For months, they have ignored bipartisan regulatory proposals strongly supported by law enforcement, local governments and patients, and instead passed only a repeal bill.  Now that the Governor vetoed that, the sole remaining option is SB 423, which proponents openly admit has been designed to “get as close to repeal as possible.”  Republicans don’t want to fix the program so that it actually works for both patients and law enforcement; they don’t want to strictly regulate and thus save some of the many new jobs that have been created to produce an array of superior cannabis-based products for patients.  It seems they’d rather keep marijuana illegitimate, shameful and subject to unsavory black market pressures.

Instead of fixing our law’s problems, SB 423 will make the voter-adopted policy even more broken and dysfunctional, and legitimate patients all over the state will suffer if it becomes law.  Its proponents make no secret of their goal to arbitrarily shrink the number of legal patients to fewer than 2,000 – rather than simply tighten the law to ensure that all patients are medically justified and supervised.

In its current form, SB 423 would leave Montana with only the pretense of allowing medical marijuana, under the draconian terms of the nation’s very worst medical law.  The bill defies federal rules on healthcare privacy by requiring patient status to be divulged to local law enforcement without guarantees of confidentiality.  It intrudes in unprecedented ways on physician standards of practice and free speech by requiring any doctor who makes more than 15 marijuana recommendations to pay the cost of an automatic investigation.  It virtually guarantees that if any patients could obtain medical recommendations, very few would actually have consistent, dependable access to medicinal quality cannabis, because it would require that cannabis be grown, magically “for free,” either by a sick patient or by a close friend or relative who can’t grow for anyone else.  The bill maximizes the difficulty and cost of producing cannabis, yet bans any payment for it.  It’s replete with provisions like these, intended solely to obstruct compassionate voter intent rather than allow its fulfillment in controlled and socially acceptable ways.

We don’t treat people this way who use narcotics to deal with their chronic pain, cancer, glaucoma, MS and other severe and usually permanent medical conditions.  And yet narcotics, even when used as directed, kill hundreds of people every year, while marijuana itself has never killed anyone.  A study of Montana’s marijuana patients conducted by a pain specialist and published last September in Practical Pain Management documented that these patients sharply reduce their dependence on narcotics, and function more productively as a result.

Hundreds of sincere and suffering Montana patients have traveled great distances in lousy weather over the past few months to testify that medical marijuana offers them a better option, in many cases the only one that actually works.  How can we tell a woman who no longer endures a dozen seizures every day that she has to go back to using the narcotics that didn’t control her epilepsy but whose side-effects did cause her to gain hundreds of extra pounds?  How do we tell an MS patient that he has to return to using the drugs that made it impossible for him to talk coherently with his children?

We have to do better.  The Montana Legislature should reject SB 423 and go back to the drawing board, or leave it to the executive branch to use administrative powers under our current law to create regulation that will control rather than obstruct the will of the state’s voters.

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