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Montana lawmakers continue to look at changes to marijuana laws

Marijuana
Posted at 6:43 PM, Mar 20, 2023

HELENA — A year into Montana’s launch of legal recreational marijuana sales, the state Legislature is looking at a series of bills that would revise the rules for the marijuana industry.

On Monday, the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee heard testimony on two marijuana-related bills. House Bill 351, sponsored by Rep. Kerri Seekins-Crowe, R-Billings, would prohibit marijuana businesses in Montana from promoting their business or brand in print, over TV and radio or using a billboard.

Currently, state law says licensees may not advertise “marijuana or marijuana products,” but they are allowed to market their brand, as permitted in Montana Department of Revenue rules.

Seekins-Crowe said she felt advertising from marijuana businesses has gone beyond what state leaders originally intended, and that HB 351 would create necessary sideboards.

“That's what we do: We say, “This is how we want this to look, we have regulated this in this industry, and this is part of the regulations with this,’” she said.

But the bill drew opposition from marijuana businesses and from the Montana Newspaper Association. They said most people in the industry have gone to great lengths to make sure their advertising follows the current rules, and most of the issues people are concerned about have come from a few bad actors.

“What you have then is a cycle of the law getting stricter, and the people who are getting around it keep getting around it, and the people who are compliant are just consistently suffering the consequences of stricter laws,” said Kate Cholewa, with the Montana Cannabis Industry Association.

Opponents of the bill suggested it would be more effective to give the Department of Revenue more staff to enforce the existing advertising rules.

Kristan Barbour, administrator of Revenue’s Cannabis Control Division, estimated that only about seven or eight licensees – out of more than 400 – have violated state advertising requirements.

“It’s very, very small,” she said.

Barbour said state regulators look at dispensaries’ advertisements and online presence when they do regular inspections, but most of their enforcement is driven by complaints from the public.

The committee also heard testimony Monday on House Bill 611, sponsored by Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman. That bill would revise the required warning labels that marijuana businesses must put on their products, to say that marijuana use during pregnancy could result in “congenital anomalies, and inherited cancers developed by a child later in life.”

Gillette said state lawmakers in other states are looking at ways like this to “strengthen messaging” about potential health risks connected to marijuana. Opponents of the bill questioned whether existing data justifies the concerns this language would raise.

The committee didn’t take immediate action on either bill Monday.

Other marijuana-related bills that have already moved forward include House Bill 304, sponsored by Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, which would require marijuana growers and manufacturers of marijuana products to install air filtration systems to address concerns about odor. That bill cleared the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

Also at issue this session will be whether to adjust the way the state uses marijuana tax revenue. Several bills have been proposed that would create different models for distributing those funds. In particular, they propose removing a section in state law that directs a percentage of taxes from marijuana sales toward Habitat Montana – a program that uses state funds for wildlife habitat conservation projects. Gov. Greg Gianforte has said the program has more than enough funding and no longer needs the marijuana revenue.

Last week, the Senate Finance and Claims Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 442, sponsored by Sen. Mike Lang, R-Malta, which would redirect that share of marijuana revenue from Habitat Montana to improving rural county roads, with an eye toward improving access to habitat. That bill passed a preliminary vote in the Senate, 33-17.

House Bill 462, sponsored by Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Montana City, would shift tax revenues toward law enforcement programs, including the Montana Highway Patrol, recruiting correctional officers and conducting human trafficking and narcotics investigations. House Bill 669, from Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, would remove most specific allocations of marijuana revenue, including to Habitat Montana, and direct the money to the state general fund. Both of those bills had initial hearings in the House Appropriations Committee last month, but the committee hasn’t taken action since.

House Bill 842, sponsored by Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, would leave the allocation for Habitat Montana, but it would redirect a smaller share of marijuana taxes to provide incentives for increased mental health services in areas with a current shortage of those services. That bill has not yet had its first committee hearing.