State divided over recreational marijuana

By 
Derrick Calhoun
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
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With the legalization of recreational marijuana passed in Montana it has left a new divide in the state, one that instead of being red or blue is red or green.

Roughly half of Montana counties voted to pass ballot initiative 190 during the 2020 general election. The initiative, which had 56% approval on the ballot, legalized the possession and use of marijuana by persons over the age of 21 in the state.

Following this legalization the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 701, which established a newly formed recreational marijuana program in the state as well as implemented and regulated what was approved by I-190 One thing that HB-701 established was that recreational marijuana would be legal in the counties that voted for it in I-190, roughly half the state’s counties, while the other counties would have to take an affirmative action to bring recreational marijuana in their boundaries if desired.

The counties that legalized marijuana are considered by some “green” counties, while the ones that it remains illegal in are considered “red” counties.

In southeastern Montana, one county that originally voted against I-190 during the general election but then brought the issue back up for a vote where it then passed was Dawson County.

According to Dawson County Commissioner Joe Sharbono, Dawson County has had the benefit of just under $67,000 in revenue gained through the taxation of marijuana products since it was made legal. He added that the cities in the county, Glendive and Richey, have each also made some money from that.

“The only benefit that I can say that we have gotten so far is our tax distribution from the sale of cannabis,” Sharbono said. “I think we have five or six dispensaries in Dawson, quite a few for a county our size.”

As far as the vote went, Sharbono said that he was actually a little surprised himself that the vote passed.

“There were enough people that were actively campaigning for it and it paid off,” he said.

As for any downsides that he has noticed since recreational marijuana was legalized in Dawson County, Sharbono said he hasn’t noticed anything that he could specifically pinpoint at this time.

“It’s still pretty new and fresh,” he said. “I can’t say that we have had a downside yet. We might have some more information on that as time goes by.”

In comparison Fergus County voted against I-190 in the general election and maintained it’s red county status after the signing of HB-701.

“Fergus County is one of the red counties, our constituents didn’t pass the referendum when it came out,” said Fergus County Commissioner Carl Seilstad. “The Legislature came out that you couldn’t sell it in the county. My take on it is that it is probably here right now but we aren’t collecting any revenue on it.”

Seilstad added that they are probably still paying for the impact on it through taxpayer money without gaining any of the income.

Fergus County Commissioner Ross Butcher said there is a petition in Fergus County right now to put the issue back on the ballot so he thinks it will get a vote in the future.

“I think most people understand that it is legal at this point and a lot of people are utilizing legal marijuana,” Butcher said. “I think the idea is that we are already suffering from it so we might as well tax it.”

Butcher raised the question about whether social issues are outweighed by the revenue benefits.

“I don’t know if it will cover the cost of the negative impacts,” Butcher said. “It might be good to generate some revenue through it that can help with some of the issues that can stem from it.”

Butcher also mentioned that society has been dealing with marijuana as a drug for a while. He also mentioned that a comparison he has heard from some people is that it took a long time for the nation to make alcohol socially acceptable as well.

“Marijuana is no different, it’s going to take some time to work that out and we are in the process of that,” he said.

Montana I-190 legalized the possession and use of one ounce or less of marijuana or eight grams or less of marijuana concentrate by persons over the age of 21 in Montana. It also allowed individuals to grow no more than four marijuana plants and four seedlings for personal use in their residence, as long as the plants are within an enclosed area with a lock and beyond public view.

Montana House Bill 701 that was signed into law by Gianforte established a newly formed recreational marijuana program in the state. The bill implemented and regulated the recreational marijuana program that voters approved in I-190 as well as funded a substance abuse prevention program.

The bill also established that the Montana counties that voted for I-190 would have recreational marijuana in their borders by default, but that the other counties would have to take an affirmative action to bring recreational marijuana in their boundaries if desired.

Other things that the bill included was a tax rate of 20% on recreational pot sales, a large leap from the 5% on medical marijuana sales, and a change in what department regulates the state’s marijuana program. Originally regulated by the Department of Public Health and Human Services, HB 701 shifted the regulation of the state’s marijuana program to the Department of Revenue.

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