Well, that was close.
After being handed a hot mess of a nanny-state weed bill from their peers in the state House, a Montana Senate committee has heavily amended the legislation and set the stage for a functional adult-use cannabis program in the state. Although the bill still contains substantial limitations, when the program launches next January, it will largely be a victory for advocates of common sense reform.
"Given the circumstances, we did as good a job as we could," Senator Tom Jacobson (D–Great Falls), a member of the committee, told the Daily Montanan.
It's been a long road to legalization in Big Sky Country. After activists ran a triumphant signature gathering campaign for Initiative 190 in the midst of the pandemic-related lockdowns, voters passed the measure by solid margins last November. Yet the state's Republican majority decided to repeal the bill and replace it with their own legislation. Three such bills were introduced, and HB 701, which was endorsed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and drafted with input from consulting firm Deloitte, won out. Yet the version of HB 701 that passed the House was rife with preposterous nanny-state restrictions: It banned outdoor grows and all forms of advertising. It also prohibited pot shops, including the 200-plus medical dispensaries already in operation, from using branded packaging to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace.
Most alarming was a provision that requires counties to opt in to the industry—states typically permit counties to opt out—and allowed county leaders to decide which businesses merited an arbitrary "certificate of good standing," thus qualifying for a license. That included current medical dispensaries, whose owners and employees could have found the rug pulled out from under them.
Rep. Mike Hopkins (R–Missoula), HB 701's sponsor, suggests that the policy was necessary to ensure the bill's passage in the House, but he's also on board with the amended bill. "It's going to be one of the best adult-use programs in the United States," Hopkins tells Reason.
His optimism is well-founded. This week, the Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Laws rectified many of the most glaring issues found in HB 701. They killed the "certificate of good standing" measure, compromised on the opt-in policy, moderately loosened packaging laws, grandfathered in outdoor grows, created a special expungement court for past marijuana offenses and rewrote language to ensure that each of the state's eight Indigenous tribes would qualify for an automatic license. Yet other restrictions, including the advertising ban and controversial limitations on how quickly a new business can scale up, remain in place.
"Having participated in the hearings and witnessed a lot of prejudices, I'm fairly optimistic that level heads prevailed and the politicians acted in good faith," says Zach Block, the owner of Montana Canna in Kalispell. "It's a far better starting point than we were fearing it would be."
While the revised bill will ease the state's anxious cannabis industry, it might not assuage the citizens and lawmakers alike who have been rattled by the legislature's anti-democratic approach to the voter initiative. (Opponents of the initiative argued it was unconstitutional for suggesting it had the power to allocate revenue; that issue is the focal point of an ongoing lawsuit.)
"Our job as a legislature, I believe, is to appropriate money in the ballot initiative, not to tinker with the will of the voters or pull a bait-and-switch with the electorate," Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell (D–Helena) said during a hearing on the House version of 701.
Granted, things could have played out much worse, like in neighboring South Dakota, where, as Reason reported, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has taken aggressive steps to shut down voter-approved cannabis reform. Yet the Montana legislature's willingness to throw out the voter initiative tracks with other policies they've implemented this session: ending same-day voter registration, removing local control in a number of areas and attempting to severely handicap residents' ability to participate in the initiative process itself.
"The whole process was an extremely dishonest brokering of the will of the people," says Pepper Petersen, who helped write Initiative 190 and is now the CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild.
While activists are breathing a sigh of relief, the battle ain't quite over yet. The legalization bill, which has now passed the Senate, still needs to be reaffirmed by the House, and signed by Gianforte. Let's hope the process goes off without a hitch or further amendments. A more restrictive bill would be bad for democracy and business alike.