HELENA — Just over a year into Montana’s recreational marijuana program, the legal framework for the system has shifted again with new laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte this week.
Changes to marijuana laws remained under debate at the State Capitol up until the last day of the 2023 legislative session. House Bills 128 and 903 both passed their final vote just before the House adjourned.
The two bills each made a wide range of revisions – and in one key case, a change only happened because both of them became law.
HB 128 was the bill that came out of discussions in a legislative interim committee, aimed at “cleaning up” the laws on marijuana sales after leaders had a chance to see how the program was working. It extends the state’s moratorium on marijuana licenses – which allows only providers who were licensed for medical marijuana as of 2020 to join the recreational market – by two years. It is now set to expire on July 1, 2025.
The bill also clarifies the rules for Montana tribes that want to take part in the adult-use marijuana program. Each of the state’s eight tribal nations was guaranteed a marijuana license. However, regulators determined that, because of the way the law was worded, those licenses would be limited to a very small cultivation area. Tribal businesses will now be able to expand their operations in the same way as other licensees, and they will have more flexibility on where they can be located.
HB 903 significantly increases the licensing fee for providers that operate multiple dispensaries – from $5,000 for each dispensary to $5,000 for the first, $10,000 for the second and another $5,000 added to the fee for each additional one.
HB 903 also contained “coordinating language” – a provision that would come into effect only if it and HB 128 were both signed into law. That language allows about 16 businesses that had so far been medical-only to join the recreational market.
One of the affected businesses is Armadillo Buds, in Glendive. Kaari Fulton, the co-owner, led a successful campaign to hold a special election in Dawson County to allow recreational marijuana sales – believing that her business would be able to join the adult-use market because she got a license in November 2020. However, she later learned the state moratorium would allow only those who were in the medical marijuana program before the statewide legalization vote on Nov. 3 to begin adult-use sales. Her license came several weeks after that.
“The rug was pulled out from underneath us,” she said.
Fulton said she was committed to staying in her community. Armadillo Buds continued throughout 2022 making only medical sales. As more people shifted from the medical market to the recreational market, her business was left relying on just seven patients to keep going.
“My back was up against the wall,” she said. “We had a couple of investors that I would have had to sell the family home to pay them back.”
The original draft from the interim committee pushed back the start of the moratorium, allowing Fulton and other providers who started later to join. However, that date change was amended in and out as the legislative session continued. If it hadn’t made it through, Fulton would have been stuck as medical-only for another two years.
“We would have been bankrupt – there is no question,” she said.
Finally, the coordinating language in HB 903 shifted the start date to April 27, 2021. Fulton still had to wait for both bills to pass and for Gianforte to sign both of them to see if she would be able to start recreational sales. On Tuesday, when the bills officially became law, Armadillo Buds finally began selling to adult-use customers.
“We had three recreational sales, and it was just probably the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long time,” said Fulton.
Fulton said, going through the long process of fighting to keep her business going, she was motivated by a sticky note she kept that read, “Who loses if I don’t win?”
“That kept me going through this whole thing,” she said.
HB 903 also requires a state review of any doctor who certifies more than 39 patients for medical marijuana cards in a single year.