OK, Montana. We have gone back and forth and around and around about medical marijuana in this state for more than a decade. It’s time for us to settle on the best course of action and work toward making it as compassionate, realistic, effective and enforceable as possible.
Initiative 182 takes Montana in the right direction. It would allow thousands of seriously ill Montanans to access a relatively affordable medicine that is proven to relieve a range of symptoms, from the anxiety and insomnia that often accompanies post-traumatic stress disorder to the nausea and loss of appetite that comes with many cancer treatments. At the same time, I-182 provides reasonable restrictions on medical marijuana businesses, with thoughtful limits and requirements on both providers and their products, to prevent the sort of problems Montana saw when the industry was almost completely unregulated.
This is the sane, sensible solution that’s eluded this state since the first medical marijuana initiative was approved by voters back in 2004 by a margin of 62 percent in favor to 38 percent opposed. Many voters who supported the measure were shocked just a few years later when the number of registered cardholders approached 30,000 and the number of providers neared 5,000.
More concerning than the numbers, however, were the tales of shady businesses offering to connect those wanting a “green card” with physicians willing recommend one after seeing a new “patient” for only a few minutes, and of equally shady pot shops proliferating in communities across Montana.
So it was little wonder the Montana Legislature sought to crack down on rampant abuse of the state’s medical marijuana law. It was disappointing, however, that instead of improving the law, legislators sought to override the will of the voters and just repeal it. In fact, a repeal bill was passed in 2011, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Unfortunately, a bill considered the next-closest thing to repeal was allowed to become law without the governor’s signature. Senate Bill 423 was challenged in court almost immediately, and has spent the last several years being picked apart by lawyers. Meanwhile, some of the most contentious portions of the bill were delayed from taking effect. This year, the parts of SB 423 that had been held up in court were finally allowed to take effect.
The ensuing fallout has marked a shameful chapter in Montana’s history. Thousands of our seriously ill family members, friends and neighbors are suffering needlessly, unable to legally access relief for their worst symptoms. Many are turning in desperation to powerful, addicting narcotics that may offer pain relief but do not help with other symptoms, such as nausea, and have scary side effects of their own. Take improperly, these drugs can cause serious damage and even death – something that is not true for cannabis.
Of the numerous problems with SB 423, the most egregious is its limitation on providers to only three patients each – effectively cutting off access to medical marijuana for the vast majority of registered cardholders.
I-182 would rectify this while also creating a licensing system to ensure providers are meeting important standards. Dispensaries would be subject to unannounced yearly inspections from state inspectors, rather than law enforcement, and the fees collected from providers would go to fund this inspection system. Police would still be free, of course, to investigate anyone suspected of breaking the law.
I-182 would also allow much-needed testing to occur, so patients and providers alike could study different products, measure exact dosages and be informed of the various strains and their effectiveness on various symptoms.
It is worth noting that, as Montana has wrestled with whether and how to regulate medical marijuana, 25 other states have enacted laws to allow the legal possession and use of medical marijuana. Four states and the District of Columbia have also legalized marijuana for recreational use; however, Montana is not currently considering whether to legalize marijuana for this purpose. Voters are being asked to decide only whether an oncologist, for example, can recommend that cancer patients suffering from pain, nausea and loss of appetite apply for a card allowing them to purchase medical marijuana, and be assured of its safety.
I-182 is the solid footing on which we should base ongoing discussions about compassionate laws and effective regulations. Voters should show our fellow Montanans fighting for their lives and their health that we haven’t abandoned them, and help pass I-182.