Special legislative committee advances Montana marijuana reform bill

Marijuana Select Committee
Posted at 8:35 AM, Apr 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 10:35:41-04

HELENA — A special Montana legislative committee has advanced its proposal for how to implement recreational marijuana in the state.

On Wednesday, the Montana Senate’s Select Committee on Marijuana Law voted 11-1 to pass House Bill 701, after extensively amending it. That wrapped up a week and a half of extensive work to narrow down the various bills seeking to overhaul the legal marijuana system voters approved with Initiative 190.

“I think for Montanans, we’ve done an incredible job making sure that the will of the voter has been heard, making sure that we have a workable product that will help our small businesses, help our communities and serve the state of Montana,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, the Senate president pro tem and chair of the select committee.

“It’s been a pleasure working with you over the last week and the committee to come up with a product that I think is good for all Montana,” said Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, the Senate minority leader and vice chair of the committee. “I’m glad that we worked as hard as we did and brought all the stakeholders to have a discussion with us, and I think we are doing right by them.”

The committee approved what they called the “big amendment,” making dozens of changes to various sections of the bill. They also added a smaller amendment from Ellsworth, requiring the Montana Department of Revenue to destroy marijuana and marijuana-infused products that fail quality testing.

HB 701 will now go through engrossing and could be ready to be heard on the Senate floor by Thursday or Friday.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated. The original post is below.

A special legislative committee is putting its stamp on the one remaining major bill to overhaul Montana’s marijuana laws.

The Montana Senate’s Select Committee on Marijuana Law met Wednesday to amend and possibly approve House Bill 701, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula.

The select committee was tasked with considering three large bills and several smaller ones that sought to amend the recreational marijuana system set up by voter-approved Initiative 190. Over the last week, they tabled two of the major bills – House Bills 670 and 707 – leaving HB 701 as the remaining vehicle for reforms.

The committee is planning significant amendments to HB 701. Most of their work was rolled into what members called “the big amendment,” which proposes dozens of changes throughout the bill.

One of the major changes in the amendment would deal with counties’ ability to block marijuana businesses. It would state that, in counties where a majority of voters rejected I-190, recreational marijuana businesses couldn’t operate unless the county held a local election where voters agreed to “opt in”. In counties where most voters approved I-190, recreational businesses would automatically be allowed unless the county or city voted to “opt out” and prohibit those businesses.

The amendment would allow current medical marijuana license holders to keep operating even if their county didn’t opt in to recreational sales.

Half of Montana’s 56 counties voted for I-190, and the other half voted against it. However, it’s estimated the counties that supported the measure include more than 80% of the state’s population.

The “big amendment” would also make a number of other changes:

· Giving counties back the ability to put a local-option marijuana tax of up to 3% before voters for approva
· Allowing existing medical marijuana providers in counties that allow recreational sales to immediately begin selling to recreational customers on Jan. 1, 2022; they would have to get an adult-use license at their next license renewal
· Limiting home growing of recreational marijuana to two mature plants and two seedlings per person, and four per household; medical marijuana patients would be allowed four mature plans and four seedlings
· Designating a specific court for handling expungement petitions for people convicted of marijuana offenses that would now be legal
· Prohibiting lease agreements from preventing tenants from possessing marijuana or using it by means other than smoking
· Allowing Montana tribes, which are each entitled to one recreational marijuana license, to have their growing sites and dispensaries up to 150 miles from their reservation, as a way to ensure tribes can use those licenses even if nearby counties don’t allow recreational sales

In addition, it lays out a significant revision in how the money from marijuana tax revenues would be use. The amendment would keep HB 701’s provision putting up to $6 million into Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “HEART Fund” for mental health and substance abuse treatment. However, it would also redirect 20% of the remaining revenue to the Habitat Montana conservation program and up to $200,000 to services for veterans and their surviving spouses – bringing the revenue distribution closer to what I-190 called for.

The committee began discussing amendments Wednesday morning, but they delayed any action on the “big amendment” until Wednesday afternoon. Leaders are hoping to quickly advance HB 701 so it can be heard by the full Senate this week.