Montana House committee hears testimony on major marijuana reform bill

Marijuana Bill Hearing
Posted at 7:37 PM, Mar 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 11:28:01-04

HELENA — On Wednesday, marijuana business owners laid out the concerns they have with a proposed bill that would reshape Montana’s cannabis laws ahead of the scheduled start of recreational sales – but some said they’re willing to look again if there are changes.

The House Business and Labor Committee held a lengthy hearing Wednesday morning on House Bill 701, sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula. The bill is one of several major bills currently under consideration that would extensively revise the legal marijuana system set up by voter-approved Initiative 190.

“It’s the closest to what I would think we can work to try and implement the initiative that was passed,” said Dave Lewis, who was a leading spokesperson for the I-190 campaign.

Under HB 701, the first licenses for recreational, or “adult-use,” marijuana dispensaries would be issued after Jan. 1, 2022. For the first 18 months, only existing medical marijuana providers could apply for a license. Adult-use businesses could only operate if county leaders or voters “opted-in” – taking specific action to allow them.

HB 701 would keep the tax on recreational marijuana tax sales at 20%, but counties could add a local option tax of up to 5% if voters approved. State tax revenues would be redirected, with up to $6 million a year going to the “HEART Fund,” an account proposed by Gov. Gianforte that would pay for mental health and substance abuse treatment. The bill would also institute maximum limits on THC content and restrict people from participating in marijuana businesses if they have had drug-related convictions, including violations of other states’ marijuana laws.

Hopkins argued the marijuana program needs to be regulated from the beginning. He pointed to the medical marijuana system, saying it is now working well – but only after the state made substantial changes.

“The people of Montana also don’t want the Wild West; the people of Montana did not enjoy their experience with the original version of medical,” he said. “So what I bring you here, House Bill 701, we are looking to learn from the mistakes of our past in this policy area; we are going to start out this time with a controlled, safe, responsible system.”

Many of those testifying Wednesday said several of HB 701’s provisions were harmful to existing marijuana providers in the state, particularly smaller ones.

“We’ve carried this industry and founded it and helped develop the regulations and worked with the inspectors to develop these standards,” said Adam Arnold of Collective Elevation. “Don’t just invalidate all our hard work and throw us locals to the side and let big money come in.”

Opponents pointed to things like the shifting of costs for product tracking tags from the state to dispensaries and the prohibition of outdoor marijuana grows. However, the provision that drew by far the most opposition was the opt-in requirement.

“If the county drags their feet and eats up our 18-month grandfather and then somebody’s allowed to come in and purchase a Tier 30 license, we’re talking about costing thousands of Montanans their jobs,” said Elliot Lindsey, of Grizzly Pine Premium Medicine.

Hopkins said it will be up to lawmakers whether to make any amendments to his bill, but he said he saw the opt-in requirement as an important way to ensure “local buy-in” for the marijuana industry.

“Whereas initiative folks are out there to pass an initiative, the 150 people here in this building are here to represent the entirety of the state of Montana, and that includes folks that are in favor, not in favor, voted for it, didn’t vote for it,” he said.

Business and Labor held hearings Tuesday on two other proposals for implementing recreational marijuana – House Bill 670 and House Bill 707. All three of the bills will also have hearings in the House Taxation Committee on Thursday.

Republican Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, who chairs the Business and Labor Committee, said he expects they will take action on the marijuana bills on Tuesday, after the Legislature’s Easter break.