Medical marijuana, tobacco taxes

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Several veteran legislators opined to me, “This is the most time I’ve spent on one issue,” referring to the hearings and executive action on the implementation of medical marijuana laws.

The House Tax Committee heard the issue through two bills, one started on the House side that was swiftly disposed of, and the other starting on the Senate side which became the bill to codify I-182, passed by voters in the last general election. The two tax committees (Senate and House), added about 45 amendments to the bill.

My amendments addressed the inclusion of testing categories for pesticides and other dangerous substances and the elimination of a requirement for a chip on required identification cards. All and all, the 40-page bill established that the lead agency will continue to be the Department of Health and Human Services, a system of revenue collection (at this point a fee-based system/patient on the provider administered with assistance from the Department of Revenue), testing procedures and methods to seek requests for proposals from labs, articulation with the Department of Agriculture for required nursery licensing and the role of the lab at Montana State University in Bozeman, a seed-to-sale tracking system — the system will be through a private vendor, and an allowable number of plants/seedlings for patient growers and providers.

The hearings were often tense as small rural providers expressed concerns that “big marijuana” interests would enter Montana and monopolize the industry. There was equally passionate testimony that the text of Senate Bill 333 would usher in recreational marijuana (a study bill to look at recreational marijuana failed on a close vote on the House floor.)

At the time of this writing, we expect a conference committee of legislators from both branches to gather this week concerning SB 333. The discrepancies, if any, will be ironed out and a final bill will eventually head to the governor’s office for a signing.

As a postscript, it’s very clear that the federal government has failed to lead on this issue. States, left to their own, must create their own Food and Drug Administration, testing and revenue collection procedures; now wondering if the new administration will go after the industry. It seems we’ve passed the tipping point to consider such actions. The medical use of marijuana is well established with positive patient results. Negative actions by the federal government will only cause confusion, and a further sense of abandonment.

The House Tax Committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 354, a proposal that would have increased the tax on tobacco products and establish a tax on electronic cigarettes (vaping products.)

The purpose of the bill was to lower tobacco use and allocate some of the revenues to fund a pay increase for health care workers in nursing and group homes. The increase would have reached $15 per hour over the course of several years. At present, reimbursement fees have not been able to keep up with realistic compensation levels necessary for worker retention in the field. Thus, there is a worker shortage (one can make more in fast food), resulting in panic stricken management seeking solutions for their patients. The vaping industry weighed in heavily with testimony and messages accusing the bill of punitive taxes upon a product that helps smokers. The vast majority of vaping product contains nicotine, and while the substitution of that product over smoking may be laudable, the attraction of the product to young, non-smokers is a setup for a lifelong nicotine addiction.

Health care workers from throughout the state provided riveting testimony as to the both the shortage of workers and the effects of tobacco use upon our citizens and state budget. I supported the bill but in the end, the majority party was unwilling to so in the committee.

The last days of the legislature are upon us. In a future article, I will provide a summary and some personal take-aways on the many positive relationships I’ve established on both sides of the aisle along with our professional staff. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome.

Democrat Dave Fern represents House District 5 in the Montana Legislature.

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