Jason Howell, president of the Montana Snowmobile Association, speaks at the Capitol on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Credit: Courtesy Montana Wildlife Federation

Conservation advocates say the governor’s plan to implement recreational marijuana is ignoring the will of Montana voters by taking money that was earmarked for public lands and redirecting it into the state’s General Fund. 

This week, a 253-page bill to codify legalized cannabis was released, and while marijuana advocates were still combing the bill to see how it lines up with the legalization initiative passed in November, conservation groups were blasting it for giving public lands the “short end of the stick.”

Initiative 190, which passed 56.9% to 43.1% last November, suggested instituting a 20% tax on marijuana sales, sending about 10% of that revenue to the state’s General Fund, and using the rest for conservation programs, substance abuse treatment and veterans services. A fiscal note released last year by the Office of Budget and Program Planning stated that marijuana legalization could generate millions of dollars for public lands. Among the programs that were expected to benefit from the revenue was Habitat Montana, a conservation effort managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

“It’s outrageous. There is no sound fiscal reason for them to disregard the voters’ intentions.”

Frank Szollosi, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation

But the bill that was released this week would divy up the funds differently. The first $6 million in revenue would be transferred to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s proposed HEART Fund, which helps support substance abuse prevention and treatment programs. After that, 88% of the revenue would go to the General Fund and 12%, not to exceed $1.95 million annually, would go into three separate accounts supporting state parks, trails and recreational facilities, and non-game wildlife. The bill does not put any money toward the Habitat Montana program.

Frank Szollosi, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, which supported the legalization initiative, said the bill as proposed goes against the will of the voters who approved it. 

“It’s outrageous,” Szollosi said. “There is no sound fiscal reason for them to disregard the voters’ intentions.”

The Montana Wildlife Federation gathered a group of hunters, anglers, business owners and landowners at the Capitol Thursday to demand that lawmakers amend the bill to put more money towards conservation. Members of Montana Conservation Voters also attended the event, according to Executive Director Whitney Tawney. 

“Our public lands get the short end of the stick under this shortsighted plan, and our elected leaders need to remember what voters asked for when they overwhelmingly approved this funding,” Whitney said in a press release. “All elected lawmakers need to respect the will of Montanans by shoring up funding for Habitat Montana and our public lands, and they’ll be hearing from a whole bunch of us until they do.”

One of the primary criticisms of I-190 was that it made suggestions about where tax revenue from legal marijuanna could go. But according to the Montana Constitution, only the Legislature can allocate funds. That was the basis of a lawsuit filed against the state after I-190’s passage by Steve Zabawa, a Billings car dealer who has campaigned against legalized marijuana for years. (On Wednesday, Zabawa said his lawsuit has been “delayed” to see how the Legislature would handle the initiative.)

Pepper Petersen is the president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, and was the political director for New Approach Montana, the group that organized last year’s legalization effort. He said he and other marijuanna advocates will be “dissecting” the bill over the next few days, and that it’s likely they will suggest changes, including language about whether Montanans can grow marijuana in their homes. As written, I-190 allows people to grow a maximum of four cannabis plants in their home for recreational purposes. But according to the bill, that would be illegal unless the grower had a medical marijuana card. 

“There are people who are already [growing plants] in the privacy of their own homes and they’re not hurting anyone,” Petersen said. “I have no doubt we’ll offer some amendments to this.”

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.