The biggest reason why Montanans are unhappy with our medical marijuana law is because nobody knows definitively what the law says regarding the regulation of medical marijuana use, production, and distribution in the state. Cities and counties across Montana have adopted a hodgepodge of different rules and regulations based upon their own interpretations of our vague medical marijuana act, which has resulted in a slew of medical marijuana-related lawsuits that could cost state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars. Despite repeated requests for clarifications about sections of the act, the Department of Health and Human Services staunchly refuses to do anything other than handle the paperwork for applications and leaves the enforcement and interpretation of the Act to local agencies.
This is understandable since the Act itself can be very confusing and is packed full of vague clauses that leave much open to individual interpretation; for instance, the Act explicitly allows medical marijuana patients and caregivers to possess up to an ounce of “Usable Marijuana”, which is defined as, “the dried leaves and flowers of marijuana and any mixture or preparation of marijuana.” Hash is made by collecting the resin glands that grow on cannabis and packing them tightly together; while most would consider hash to be clearly a preparation of marijuana, there are some in law enforcement who still insist on prosecuting anyone producing hash. Another example of an ambiguous area in the law concerns the question of who can sell to whom; a number of cities and counties insist that, according to their interpretation of the law, caregivers cannot sell cannabis to other caregivers. What if the other caregiver is also your patient? Can patients still sell to other patients? How can we resolve these complicated questions about an industry that most of us, including our law makers, know very little about?
The answer is actually very simple; we tax and regulate cannabis the same way as any other major state agricultural product. Amend the Medical Marijuana Act to give an agency like the Department of Agriculture the power the make administrative rules clarifying the text in accordance with the spirit of the Act. Cannabis is an agricultural product like wheat or livestock; even though it is used medicinally, the Department of Agriculture is far better suited to monitoring the production and distribution of a plant than the Department of Health and Human Services. According to their website, “The mission of the Montana Department of Agriculture is to protect producers and consumers, and to enhance and develop agriculture and allied industries.” That sounds like a perfect match for a budding young cannabis industry crying out for regulation and legitimization; caregivers and patients alike would welcome a small tax on each transaction to pay for the safety and recognition of formal industry regulations imposed by a State agency.
If there are concerns about quality control or supply, the regulatory agency can impose regulations to protect consumers; if there are suspicions that caregivers are operating unlawfully, let that agency inspect their facilities and determine the truth of the allegations. With a regulatory agency inspecting and imposing controls, patients and caregivers can use those administrative rules as a way to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Act. By using the system already in place to regulate crop production and distribution, a regulatory agency such as the Department of Agriculture can investigate allegations of unlawful behavior and adopt new regulations to prevent any further abuses without the need for creating a new bureacracy.
These administrative rules would prove to be a boon for caregivers, patients, and their communities; concerned community members want to be sure that the medical marijuana trade is kept safe and legitimate, while caregivers want their industry to be properly regulated and patients want explicit guidelines to be sure they don’t accidentally break the law. Law enforcement is an extremely expensive and valuable resource to a community that we shouldn’t be wasting on harmless caregivers and patients when they could be protecting us against actual criminals. There is no magical amendment that we can pass that will completely fix our medical marijuana law; the only way to properly regulate and control an unpredictable new industry is to empower an agency like the Department of Agriculture with the ability to make administrative rules that will make our Medical Marijuana Act effective and responsive to the needs of Montanans all across the state.