Legislature OKs new rules for medical marijuana providers

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HELENA — The Montana Legislature has approved sweeping changes to the state’s medical marijuana industry, passing a heavily amended bill on Tuesday in response to the ballot initiative passed by voters last November.

If signed by Gov. Steve Bullock, Senate Bill 333 would set up a seed-to-sale tracking system, require laboratory testing for medical marijuana providers and impose a tax on medical marijuana products by weight.

While the bill passed the House and Senate by wide majorities, some lawmakers and medical-marijuana proponents argued it would unfairly burden small providers, particularly in rural communities. “Small providers” are defined in the bill as those serving fewer than 10 patients.

Rep. Steve Gunderson, R-Libby, was one of the bill’s most vocal opponents, arguing that costly regulations on small providers would hinder access for patients in his district battling asbestos-related health issues. Gunderson himself was diagnosed two years ago with pleural thickening, a lung disease often associated with asbestos exposure and a common precursor to mesothelioma.

“With the advent of the autoimmune diseases and all the other weird things that go along with this that they’re finding, I may be a [medical marijuana] patient someday,” he said during an interview Wednesday.

While the issue is personal, Gunderson added that he had been contacted by providers in his district worried about language in the bill he believes favors large providers at the extent of smaller ones.

“I think we could have made a good bill, but it was too large, too complex, with too many moving parts,” he said, noting that the bill accumulated 36 amendments in the House and Senate before a conference committee worked out a compromise last week.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, objected to the characterization that the bill was over-amended, noting Wednesday that many initial changes were stripped out later in the process, leaving what she called a “strong bill” that was improved by the many revisions since its introduction.

Instead of passing Caferro’s bill, Gunderson had argued in favor of a separate measure to allow an interim committee to study the issue over the next two years to fine-tune regulations on the bill. In the meantime, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services would create regulations for the industry, under the terms of the ballot initiative. It failed to pass earlier this month.

Casey Palmer co-owns the Natural Solutions dispensary in Evergreen. He’s expanding his operation to a warehouse in the hopes of expanding further beyond his current roster of 62 patients. A self-described “medium-sized” provider, Palmer said he generally supports the proposed regulations.

“It’s really been twisted and turned here. Overall I’m pretty pleased and if we all want to have a business, we have to have some sort of regulations in place,” he said.

But he also said that license fees and the tax on weight produced, as opposed to an additional per-patient fee, favors larger providers over smaller ones.

“If you have 20, 30 patients, you couldn’t make it, absorbing all these fees so you probably have to be a 50-or-more provider,” Palmer said.

Adam Hertz, who carried the bill in the House, disagrees. On Wednesday he said that the final changes made in the bill were largely intended to benefit small providers, pointing specifically to language that gives small providers free use of programs required for the tracking program.

“Between that and the [three-year] exemption from testing, what we offered in SB 333 is far better than what they would have gotten from DPHHS,” Hertz said.

He also said that a proposed per-patient fee would have potentially hurt small providers because it doesn’t account for the volume of use by each patient. Hertz acknowledged the system isn’t perfect, but noted that legislators would still have an opportunity to return in 2019 to iron out wrinkles in the regulations.

As of Wednesday evening, the bill had not yet transmitted to Bullock’s office for his signature.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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