HELENA — It was clear marijuana was going to be one of the major issues of the last half of the Montana Legislature’s 2021 session – and in the session’s closing moments, it reemerged.
On Thursday, a last-minute maneuver on marijuana became the last thing holding up the end of the session. Republican lawmakers attempted to make one more major change that would have affected recreational and medical marijuana, but it fell short at the last step.
The bill at the center of Thursday’s debates was House Bill 640. Originally, it included only small changes to marijuana law, but in the afternoon, a conference committee added several larger sections that would make changes to House Bill 701 – the major marijuana implementation bill the Legislature gave final approval to this week.
The main amendment, proposed by Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, would have redirected some money from marijuana tax revenue to set up a state trust fund. The interest on that fund would then have been used to address any future negative impacts of marijuana use.
“I believe this is a much better fiscal approach – long-term approach – to what we don’t know exactly is coming,” said Regier. “We know something’s coming, we know the storm clouds are there, we just don’t know exactly how hard the rain is going to come. This provides a tool for future legislatures to address that problem.”
The idea of a trust fund initially appeared in House Bill 670, from Regier and Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell. HB 670 was one of three competing marijuana bills the Legislature was considering earlier in the session.
In the amendment to HB 640, the money for the trust fund would have been based on how much of Montana’s marijuana sales shifted from the medical marijuana program to the recreational market. It also would have used some of the money to support local governments, and removed the provision in 701 allowing counties to institute a local-option marijuana tax.
However, most of the opposition to Regier’s amendment stemmed from another provision, which would have required that anyone seeking a medical marijuana card for severe chronic pain to get a referral from a physician who is “board-certified in pain medicine.”
Sen. Ellie Boldman, D-Missoula, said she only knew of four doctors in the state who would have met that requirement. She said the provision would be a major obstacle for patients to get access to medical marijuana, especially if they lived in rural areas. A number of rural counties will not have recreational dispensaries since HB 701 requires a local vote to allow those businesses in counties where most voters opposed the legalization measure last fall.
“You certainly are ending medical marijuana for the vast majority of the folks that are utilizing this legal product right now and have been for a number of years,” Boldman said. “And if that’s not enough, all of those businesses that provide products to those medical, you end them too, the farmers and the small business owners in your county.”
Montana currently has more than 41,000 registered medical marijuana patients. More than 32,000 of them claim severe chronic pain as a qualifying ailment.
Opponents of the amended bill also criticized the attempt to change the marijuana system after the Legislature had already worked on and finalized HB 701.
“I just don’t think this is honest dealing in my book,” said Rep. Katie Sullivan, D-Missoula.
Action on the House and Senate floors was delayed for several hours, first as the conference committee met to amend HB 640 and then as the final version of the bill was handed out to lawmakers.
On the House floor, HB 640 passed 64-35, with nearly all Republicans in support. However, the Senate rejected it, 22-28, with 9 Republicans joining all 21 Democrats in opposition.
Regier told MTN he was disappointed by the Senate’s decision. He said his main concern in the bill was the trust fund, and that other states’ experiences have shown the need to set aside resources to deal with marijuana impacts. He denied that the provision on chronic pain was intended to force people off the medical marijuana system, and argued many will switch to the recreational market on their own.
The rejection of HB 640 means, after all the flurry of activity, the situation with marijuana remains as it did earlier in the week: The Legislature passed one major reform bill, HB 701, which is now on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. If he signs it into law, the first legal recreational sales could begin Jan. 1, 2022.