HELENA – The Senate voted 29-21 on Thursday to repeal Montana’s medical marijuana law after an emotionally charged debate marked by angry political finger-pointing by senators from both sides.
After debating for more than an hour, the Senate finally gave preliminary approval to House Bill 161, by Speaker Mike Milburn, R-Cascade, to repeal the state’s controversial medical marijuana law on July 1. The Senate will take a final vote on the bill Friday.
Earlier on Thursday, the Senate voted 36-14 to send SB423, which would repeal and overhaul the medical marijuana law, to the House floor after it stalled in Senate on Wednesday. Because it missed a key deadline, SB423 now will take a two-thirds majority vote in the House to suspend the bill.
Milburn said he will ask the House GOP majority to suspend the rules and take up SB423 as a second option to the repeal bill he prefers.
During the debate on HB161, Sen. Rowlie Hutton, R-Havre, said he has been asked as a pastor to participate in interventions for people addicted to marijuana. He called for making medical marijuana illegal again.
“This is completely out of control up and down the Hi-Line,” Hutton said, adding, “Sometimes the most compassionate answer you can give is no, you don’t need this.”
But Sen. Ron Erickson, D-Missoula, urged senators to re-read all the emails they’ve been receiving from Montanans on the issue.
“Over and over and over, people were in terrible shape in their lives until 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, whenever they began to use medical marijuana,” he said. “What they are begging us is to be allowed to live because this herb has helped them.”
Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, who said he is a cancer survivor, said Montana’s medical marijuana system is out of control, with nearly 30,000 cardholders, marijuana growers and caregivers.
“There are a lot of people using medicine, Senator Erickson, but there are also a lot of people smoking pot,” Wittich said.
Soon, however, the debate boiled over to what happened on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Republicans said Democrats left them with no choice but to vote for repeal after refusing to give the GOP majority the votes it needed for a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules on SB423.
Democrats tried to broker a deal Wednesday to provide Republicans with enough votes in exchange for GOP votes for a $97.8 million bonding bill that also takes a two-thirds majority. Republicans, however, refused and criticized the Democrats’ effort.
Sen. Taylor Brown, R-Huntley, chided Democrats for blocking the rules waiver Wednesday.
“I’ve heard here tonight that we shouldn’t play games,” Brown said. “Well, I would like to know what happened yesterday if that wasn’t games that were played yesterday.”
Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, fired back, calling this the “by far the worst session” he’s experienced in the minority. He talked about Democrats’ failed efforts to get a deal Wednesday.
“What I figured out yesterday and what this caucus figured out yesterday is what we’re going to get that the rest of this session,” Keane said. “You can continue to do it to us, but sometimes on these important issues, we do need to talk. It’s not happening. … And we’re going to continue to vote no until someone starts talking to us around here some time.”
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, took offense to comments characterizing medical marijuana users as people running with the wrong crowd.
“How dare you say that,” he shouted. “For people that have MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease and a whole host of other maladies that have chosen not to be addicted to narcotics, that the wrong crowd? But no, we have a pharmaceutical industry that can market that. We said that’s OK.”
Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, who previously opposed the repeal bill and helped write the repeal-and-overhaul bill, said he felt compelled to vote for the repeal after what happened Wednesday.
He talked about drug abuse in schools and contended that organized crime is involved in medical marijuana here
“I have no choice,” he said. “I did all that I could. I’d encourage everyone in my caucus and the few of you that are not satisfied with the status quo to give (HB161) the green light.”
Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, said a bipartisan interim legislative committee did a comprehensive study on medical marijuana and agreed on a major bill that has been bottled up in a House committee in favor of the repeal bill.
“That’s why we’re here today, because politics played a role,” she said.
Then Gillan added she was tired of being lectured about drug abuse in schools and said she hopes legislators will concentrate on other needs in schools, a reference to school funding and her anti-bullying bill.
“So spare me the lectures,” she said. “I don’t need them.”