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New law for an old drug

Local state legislature candidates discuss how they think the legislature should deal with medical marijuana issues in the next session

Candidates for the state legislature are grappling with medical marijuana issues as more Montanans become patients and caregivers. When the 2011 legislature convenes in January, legislators will address areas from the patient approval process to caregiver regulations. In this article, local candidates discuss their thoughts on the issue as they prepare for the primary elections in June.

House District 11

Incumbent Janna Taylor and Cheryl Wolfe are both candidates for House District 11. 

Taylor said to be compassionate, the people of Montana passed an initiative “allowing the limited use of marijuana, under medical supervision, by patients with debilitating medical conditions.” 

Taylor questioned how one caregiver can assist more than a few patients and would like to see the number of patients capped at five. 

Wolfe disagrees with Taylor. She said she has “an issue with the entire idea that a moderately harmless plant like marijuana is criminalized in the first place.”

Citing the use of other plants, such as chamomile tea for stomach upsets and cloves for toothaches, Wolfe said, “If someone’s doctor thinks marijuana might help with a medical condition then the government should stay out of it as much as possible.” 

Wolfe also said Montana should not cap the number of patients a caregiver may have.

People in Montana should be able to grow “potatoes, peas, trees, hemp, mint, canola or any other crop they choose,” Wolfe added. 

To tighten up the law, Taylor would like definitions for “medical supervisor” and “debilitating conditions.” She also has questions about high school and college students who are medical marijuana users and where they can use their marijuana.

Since the Department of Public Health and Human Services keeps a list of licensed caregivers, Taylor would like to see DPHHS personnel inspect growing areas to ensure regulations are being followed.

Wolfe said in general she is not in favor of more regulations for individuals or small businesses unless there is factual evidence of harms or specific goals, which cannot be addressed through existing laws.

With the increase in medical marijuana patients from 800 in 2008 to 12,000 in 2010, Taylor said the patient requirements should be more specific. 

“The term ‘under a doctor’s care’ needs to be defined as continuing care, not just one phone call or e-mail contact,” Taylor explained.

Wolfe has a different viewpoint and would like to see marijuana use decriminalized and regulated under the same guidelines as alcohol and tobacco. 

For now, Wolfe said application fees should be waived for medical marijuana patients with very limited means.

HIPAA laws protect patient confidentiality for most medical issues, and Wolfe said medical marijuana patients are entitled to the same protection under HIPAA. 

“Our right to privacy and control of our medical information should be inviolable.” 

Taylor disagreed. 

“As long as we have this unusual medical distribution process and Federal law still considers marijuana possession a crime, I do not think HIPAA laws should apply,” Taylor explained. 

(Editor’s Note:  J. Garth Cox and Josh D. King are also candidates for House District 11. As of press time, they had not responded.) 

Senate District 5

Edd Blackler and incumbent Verdell Jackson are vying for the Senate District 5 seat.

One main issue about medical marijuana that concerns Blackler is it’s creating “an incredibly sticky situation for law enforcement.” There is too much flexibility in the law, and sources of medical marijuana are popping up all over, Blacker said.

Jackson explained three issues which concern him. 

The first issue is the tremendous increase in the number of people using medical marijuana, Jackson said, from 800 patients in 2008 to over 12,000 patients now. This increase in patients has led to medical marijuana storefronts and businesses springing up all over, and the state has already seen violence attached to medical marijuana, Jackson said. 

He said, “Zoning is not going to solve the problem.”

Jackson has concerns about the side effects of medical marijuana as well as it being a “stepping stone to other drugs.” 

The way patients are screened to see if they qualify for medical marijuana is “just wide open,” Jackson said. He’s read articles about patients who receive a prescription over the internet. Putting limits on screening procedures might help, Jackson added.

Jackson did carry a bill in the last legislature to address impaired driving, but he said the bill went down to the aggressive marijuana lobby.

Since Initiative 148 was a citizen’s initiative, Blackler said the legislature should send it through normal channels to tighten the regulations on medical marijuana. 

He also said, “I think we should probably take a look  — as a pattern — at the way other drugs are dispersed and dispensed.”

All these issues and more will be thrown at the legislature. Since the legislative session starts in January of 2011 and bills won’t take effect until April or May of 2011, whenever the governor signs them, Jackson said it’s the right time to be thinking about what should be done about medical marijuana.

House District 9

According to incumbent House District 9 representative, Scott Reichner, it was Montanans' compassionate hearts that voted to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, but it’s the legislature that must find a way to regulate it. 

“That’s the tough thing, the legislature has to pick up the pieces and to help to manage it the way people intended,” Reichner said. 

And like any brand new law, most legislators agree that there are some issues that need to be addressed during the next session in January. 

Many legislators and district candidates list doctor accountability, stricter guidelines for issuing medical marijuana cards and more regulations on medical marijuana caregivers and growers as specific issues that they would like to see addressed. 

Incumbent house representative John Fleming was surprised that the law does not specifically state that medical marijuana growers must divulge the locations of grow sites. 

Both he and his republican opponent, Dan Salomon, believe that local law enforcement officials should inspect the medical marijuana sites to verify if the sites are legal and following correct procedures. 

Salomon also makes a point that a caregiver should have a limit to the number of patients he or she is allowed to provide marijuana to. 

“A caregiver should be helping the patient who by definition has a debilitating medical condition,” Salomon said. 

“If a person is just providing the marijuana and no care, they are just a drug dealer.”

Fleming is willing to give the medical marijuana business a little more time to develop. He stated that without the data necessary, this decision will be hard to make. 

As far as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is concerned, both Fleming and Salomon differed. 

“Confidentiality issues might not apply and most likely should not, given the lack of confidence the general public appears to have in this process,” Fleming said. “Most likely HIPPA applicability will be decided by the courts.” 

Salomon believes that medical marijuana should be treated no differently than other medications and when it comes down to what is prescribed in a doctor’s office, mum’s the word. 

“Doctor to patient confidentiality is the law,” Salomon said. 

Most candidates agree that when it comes to daily life, employment and landlord/tenant issues all of which are vague in the law — logic should play a part in creating regulation. 

“Common sense says, if property or safety of others might be adversely affected specific regulations and transparency are appropriate,” Fleming said. 

Regardless of any specific viewpoints on the issue,  medical marijuana is in Montana and here to stay. In January, legislature will have to work together — republicans, democrats, libertarians and independents — to ensure medicinal marijuana's presence in society has a positive influence.  

“The genie’s out of the bottle and it’s going to be very difficult to shove it back in,” Reichner said. “What we have to do in the legislature is fight it — we need to manage it better as a government should. 

“There’s no education, no training, no oversight, no accreditation,” Reichner continued. “It’s very confusing to society. 

Senate District 8

Senate District 8 candidates Joey Jayne, D-Arlee; Shannon Augare, D-Browning; and Rick Jennison, R-Ronan; all agreed that medical marijuana issues will present a huge challenge to the new legislature.

Augare said while the Medical Marijuana Act was overwhelmingly approved by voters, he doesn’t think the people intended to create the situation we have now.

“I’m all for people who need (medical marijuana) to have access to medical marijuana cards; however, (there are) those who are abusing the system, and we need to address that,” Augare said. “I believe the legislature will look seriously at creating criteria and a process (for patient applications).”

Jennison said he feels the large number of new medical marijuana patients over the past several months indicates problems with the system.

“It’s out of hand,” he said. “How can this many people need medical marijuana? … I think there’s a small number of patients that can benefit.”

But Jennison said medical professionals should be the ones to regulate the patient approval process, not the legislature.

“The government should not be telling a doctor licensed in the state of Montana what to do,” Jennison said.

Jayne said she would like to see the legislature address issues like “misuse or exceeding the legal limit by the qualifying patient or caregiver.”

All three candidates said they would not limit the number of patients per caregiver, but Augare said legislators need to address questions about record-keeping, licensure of caregivers and dosage regulations.

“Something definitely needs to be done in very specific terms,” he said.

As far as employment issues are concerned, “If you fail the drug test, you fail the drug test,” Jennison said. “I’m in arbor culture — I don’t want a guy on the rope below me high on medical marijuana, I can tell you that.”

But Augare disagreed, saying medical marijuana patients should be protected under the law just as they would be with other medical issues.

“I think people should not be discriminated against for medical issues,” Augare said.

House District 15

“The legislature is going to have to be very creative” in dealing with medical marijuana issues, Joe Read, R-Ronan, said.

And he’s not alone in recognizing the complexity of the medical marijuana situation. 

“I think we need to definitely look at adjusting (the law),” said James Steele, D-Arlee. “I would support the intent of the law … right now I think it’s a little out of hand.”

Frosty Calf Boss Ribs, D-Heart Butte, said she feels confident the legislative process will be able to work out many of the kinks in the Medical Marijuana Act.

“I believe medical marijuana has helped many patients with severe and chronic pain, but there are many details to be worked out,” Boss Ribs said. “I support the legislative process, which was designed to deal with tough issues like these, and I look forward to understanding these issues fully. I’m not an expert on medical marijuana issues, but after the lengthy legislative process, I certainly will be.”

As far as regulating caregivers, Read said that while he’s “not a fan of increased bureaucracy,” the state needs to keep caregivers accountable.

“It’s just gonna be an additional burden the state’s gonna have to accept,” he said.

But Read said he wouldn’t cap the number of patients per caregiver.

“Well, there’s a free enterprise part of me that says ‘No,’” Read said. “The caregiver issue will weed itself out by success of failure.”

It would also be easier for the state to regulate and manage a few caregivers with a lot of patients as opposed to many more caregivers with just a couple of patients each, he added.

Steele agreed that the state should enforce some sort of reporting requirements for caregivers and tighten up the caregiver licensing process.

“I think there definitely needs to be … closer verification of who caregivers are,” Steele said. “If we’re paying attention to the reporting requirements … if the records are being kept clear, I don’t know that I have an issue with the number of patients (per caregiver).”

Right now, there’s a lot of money in the medical marijuana industry, Read noted, and doctors and clinics are profiting greatly from the loose regulations on patient approval.

“There needs to be a whole process review,” Read said.

Steele said he would like to consult with patients, caregivers and medical professionals on the issue, and “I think we do need to reevaluate the application process,” he said.

On employment issues, Read said if a job description states that employees will be drug tested, and a person fails said drug test because of legal medical marijuana, the person should still be held accountable.

“I would back the employer,” Read said.

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