Montana House endorses three marijuana reform bills after debate, amendments

House Floor
Posted at 6:40 PM, Apr 06, 2021

HELENA — The Montana House has advanced three bills that provide different visions for how to implement recreational marijuana in the state, after legislative leadership asked them to keep all three alive.

Lawmakers debated House Bills 701, 670 and 707 on the House floor, then passed all three in preliminary votes.

Before the floor debate began, the two parties held caucuses to discuss the bills. In the majority Republicans’ caucus, House Speaker Rep. Wylie Galt of Martinsdale and House Majority Leader Rep. Sue Vinton of Billings said all three should move on to the Senate, to provide more time for amendments and for all lawmakers to give input.

“I want to make clear: Your leadership wants all three of these bills to progress,” said Vinton.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns about the process that had been followed with these bills – particularly the short time that committees had to work on them. Galt acknowledged some would have concerns with the bills, but he said it was best to keep all options open for now.

“This is far from over; the Senate’s going to have a couple weeks, then most likely we’re going to be in a conference committee with this,” he said. “So don’t look at these as final products. These are vessels and ideas moving, and we need to keep them moving so everybody’s idea has a seat at the table.”

The first bill up for debate was House Bill 701, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, a Republican from Missoula. It would set up separate licenses for medical and recreational dispensaries, limit licenses to existing marijuana providers for 18 months, require counties to “opt-in” to allowing marijuana businesses and send some of the tax revenue to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “HEART Fund” account for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Hopkins said his bill was designed as a comprehensive plan for legalized marijuana.

“When we walked in here at the beginning of this session coming out of the election with I-190, the job that was set before us was delivering to the people of Montana a controlled, safe, responsible system for the implementation of adult-use marijuana here in the state of Montana,” he said. “I think that by the time we walk out of these doors, we will have fulfilled that requirement.”

That bill has been the most talked about since the start of the session, and lawmakers brought up 30 amendments to it on Tuesday. They passed 16 of them – including removing the ability for counties to put a local option tax on marijuana sales, stopping money from the state’s settlement with tobacco companies from being placed into the HEART Fund, and restoring a provision from Initiative 190 that would protect people from being denied custody or adoption rights or an organ transplant for using marijuana.

The amended bill passed 59 to 41, with most Republicans in favor, but 8 Republicans joining all 33 Democrats in opposition.

The second bill, HB 670, is sponsored by Rep. Derek Skees, a Republican from Kalispell. It would create a single license for medical and recreational marijuana sales, lower the tax on recreational sales to 15% and raise the medical marijuana tax to 5%. It would direct one-third of recreational marijuana revenues on recreational sales into a trust fund to address negative impacts of marijuana use, with the rest going toward the state’s public employee pension liability.

Skees said his bill was based on the idea that the state shouldn’t be using revenue from marijuana sales directly for new programs, since it’s not guaranteed that revenue will always be there.

“If we set up this trust fund, and only draw off the interest, Montana makes money from the use of marijuana and we use it to specifically deal with the hundreds of problems we’re going to get,” he said. “I pray that’s the biggest takeaway from my bill.”

The third bill, HB 707, came from Republican Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula. It would set up a three-tiered system based on how the state manages alcohol – with marijuana growers selling to wholesalers, who would sell to dispensaries. It would also require a license for people to grow marijuana at home, and it would put all tax revenue from recreational sales in the general fund.

Tschida said his system would give the state more oversight on marijuana and make the system easier to manage.

“Instead of retail outlets being taxes, we would do it at the wholesale level; it would cut down a lot of work for the Department of Revenue,” he said. “They’d have fewer businesses that they would have to inspect and we would hopefully tamp down the illicit market a little bit.”

HB 670 and 707 both passed 67-33 on near party-line votes, with almost all Republicans in favor and Democrats against.

Democrats said they voted against all three bills because they made too many changes to the voter-approved initiative that laid out a framework for recreational marijuana. Rep. Kim Abbott of Helena, the House minority leader, acknowledged that initiatives can’t appropriate money directly, but said lawmakers should follow what

“They wanted it to go to public lands and conservation, they wanted it to go to addiction services, community-based care, they wanted it to go to veterans’ services,” she said. “I’d like to take us back in that direction.”

But Hopkins argued the vote for I-190 was a majority for legalizing marijuana, not for the spending priorities that were in the initiative.

“You say to me that the people of Montana expressed their will that they wanted this money to be going to these causes,” he said. “I say, okay, well, please explain to me why I-182 that dealt with medical marijuana, didn’t have anything to do with conservation dollars, got 57% of the vote; I-190, dealt with conservation dollars, got 57% of the vote.”

All three bills will now go to the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday morning, before returning to the House floor for a final vote Thursday. The bills have to be through the House by the end of Thursday to keep moving forward.