HELENA — Montana lawmakers are hearing some of the first bills of this legislative session aimed at tightening limits on the future recreational marijuana system.
On Wednesday, the House Business and Labor Committee heard testimony on House Bill 568, sponsored by Republlican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls.
The bill would limit the number of recreational marijuana dispensaries in each county to one for every 10,000 residents, up to a maximum of 10. Only one dispensary would be allowed in counties with fewer than 10,000 people.
HB 568 would also require dispensaries to be 1,000 feet away from places of worship, schools, preschools, day care facilities, parks, recreational facilities and playgrounds. The current restriction under Initiative 190 – passed by Montana voters last year – would be 500 feet from places of worship and schools.
Legal marijuana sales in Montana are currently set to begin in January 2022, though some lawmakers are seeking to delay that date. Sheldon-Galloway said she was concerned that many children are already exposed to marijuana, and the start of recreational sales would only increase that exposure.
“The people of Montana have asked us to have recreational marijuana in our state,” said Sheldon-Galloway. “My bill is just asking for some sideboards on that.”
According to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and Montana Department of Commerce, four counties – Yellowstone, Missoula, Gallatin and Flathead – have more than 100,000 residents and would be limited to 10 dispensaries each under HB 568. Cascade County could have 8 dispensaries; Lewis and Clark County 7; Ravalli County 4; Lake and Silver Bow Counties 3; and Hill, Lincoln and Park Counties 2. The remaining 44 counties would be limited to one dispensary each. That would be a total of 115 across the state.
During Wednesday’s hearing, no one testified in support of HB 568. A number of marijuana providers and advocates spoke in opposition, saying the change could force many existing marijuana businesses out of operation.
I-190 stated that, for the first year, recreational marijuana licenses should only go to businesses already licensed to provide medical marijuana. As of December, Montana had 237 approved medical marijuana providers, operating 355 dispensaries and serving 41,638 registered cardholders.
Opponents said limiting the state to a much lower number of recreational licenses meant those that don’t receive one will be at a significant disadvantage.
“If I do not get to operate, I am bankrupt completely,” said Glen Broughton, who owns dispensaries in Missoula, Lolo and St. Regis. “Everybody says, ‘You can still do medical.’ Well, not really. Look in every other state that’s gone recreational: Medical has gone the way of the dinosaur.”
Opponents also argued that spreading a greater demand among fewer marijuana providers would mean large companies could dominate the industry.
“The only way to operate and to provide for that many people – not including out of state – is you have to be a massive entity,” said Brandon Madland. “So who gets to control that?”
The committee took no immediate action on HB 568.
Also this week, the House Judiciary Committee advanced House Bill 517, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings. That bill would require stronger penalties for underage marijuana possession – bringing them in line with the current rules for alcohol possession.
Mercer also sponsored House Bill 457, which would delay implementation of the recreational marijuana laws for one year. That bill is set for a hearing on Friday.