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MT lawmaker says ND lawmakers should deal with medical marijuana, not voters

As Secretary of State Al Jaeger reviews a medical marijuana ballot initiative, a Montana state legislator recommends sending it through the state assembly instead.

In 2004, Montana passed a medical marijuana initiative through a general election which was hard to regulate, said Montana State Sen. Donald Steinbeisser, R-Sidney.

"The problem we had in Montana, before the last session, over half of the people that were using medical marijuana cards were 20- to 30-year-olds," he said. "You know dog-gone well there's something wrong with that."

There are those who have a genuine need for medicinal marijuana, Steinbeisser said. But registered patients spiked at more than 30,000 in June 2011 in a state with a population of 989,415 at the 2010 census, according to the Montana Department of Public Health. That's 3 percent of the population.

"A couple, three years ago it just exploded. Everybody was getting cards," Fallon County, Mont., Sheriff Tim Barkley said. "One of the things that Montana failed to do is they kind of passed this law on the spur of the moment."

In the last legislative session, Montana lawmakers tried to reign in some of the abuse of the legalized medical marijuana, Steinbeisser said. A complete repeal was vetoed by the governor, and the current reforms passed, but Montana's Supreme Court pulled part of it.

The reforms did help, he said. As of July there were 8,844 patients registered in Montana.

A registered card holder may have four mature plants, 12 seedlings, and 1 ounce of usable marijuana, according to Montana law. A provider may grow and prepare marijuana for others, and are allowed to have the same amounts for each registered card hold for whom they are growing.

Before the reforms, which were aided by a state-wide federal raid, Fallon County saw a lot of users and several providers, Barkley said. As of July there were four registered patients and no providers there.

Nearby Dawson County, which hosts Glendive, Mont., as its county seat, had 51 patients and two providers, according to the Montana DPH. Wibaux County, which borders North Dakota along Interstate 94, had three patients and no providers.

"I don't know if I know of anyone in our community or anyone personally that got a medical marijuana card for medical reasons," Barkley said of that initial rush to obtain cards. "Most of the people that I saw get the cards were heavy users of marijuana for a lot of years. ... I guess it was legal for them, then. But I didn't know of any of them having cancer issues."

How North Dakota law enforcement handles the potential legalization of medical marijuana all depends on the wording of the initiative, Golden Valley County Sheriff Scott Steele said. Beach, that county's seat, is 12 miles from Wibaux and three from the Montana border.

"Not having a crystal ball and not being able to predict how the law would read and how the laws would differ from what Montana has, I certainly see some issues that could make it more of an issue because of the fact that our law will not read the same as Montana's," he said, adding reciprocity or lack thereof between the states could be a major law enforcement problem.

North Dakota health officer Terry Dwelle said the federal Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved marijuana as a medicine and there's increased heart attack risk for someone who smokes it, and the smoke has cancer-causing elements.

Rep. Steve Zaiser, D-Fargo, chairman of the North Dakota medical marijuana campaign, said there's plenty of medical literature about marijuana benefits for chemotherapy patients and people who suffer from lymphoma.

He said users don't have to smoke much marijuana to get pain relief, and it shouldn't be compared to cigarettes.

In Montana, officials and citizens were a bit hasty in legalizing medicinal marijuana and could have done more research into pharmaceutical options, Barkley said.

"We didn't do a very good job here in Montana as law enforcement getting the word out to the people," he said. "I think the reason it passed here is good people thought 'well, you know, people that are dying and need some relief and can use marijuana to get it.' And I think that's true at some point."

The proposed North Dakota initiative still needs approval from Jaeger before it can end up on the ballot. From there the people of North Dakota will decide if they want to legalize medicinal marijuana. If passed it would take effect 30 days later.

The Legislature should be the final deciding entity in any legalization efforts, Steinbeisser said.

"I think that if you're going to pass any medical marijuana legislation you need to do it through the legislature and not through initiative," he said. "Because initiatives are very good but they can be very dangerous, at least in Montana law."

The Associated Press Contributed to this story.