A trio of bills to regulate recreational marijuana could be heading to the Senate this week after a series of votes by House lawmakers on Tuesday.
The bills offer competing visions for what recreational cannabis will look like in the state, and marijuana advocates are frustrated because all three differ from the initiative that voters approved by a large margin last fall.
“The Legislature was charged with implementing Initiative 190, not repealing it and rewriting it,” said Pepper Petersen, president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, on Tuesday evening. “The voters gave us a clear signal of what they wanted, and these [legislators] clearly do not respect the voters.”
House Bill 701 was introduced by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-East Missoula, and is backed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. It is seen by many as the bill most likely to eventually land on the governor’s desk. It strays from Initiative 190 in that it would require counties to vote on whether to allow recreational marijuana businesses in their community, and it would open the door for out-of-state producers to enter Montana’s recreational market. House Bill 670 was authored by Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, and is more closely aligned with last year’s initiative. House Bill 707, authored by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, would treat recreational marijuana like alcohol and allow the state to tax it wholesale.
All three bills have been criticized by conservation groups for steering a majority of cannabis tax revenue into the state’s General Fund, instead of into conservation projects as language in Initiative 190 had suggested.
On Tuesday, amendments to change that and other aspects of the bills were suggested during an afternoon House floor session, but many were rejected. Republicans have noted that while Initiative 190 directed recreational cannabis tax revenue toward conservation projects, only the Legislature can allocate funds. The few amendments that were added to HB 701 included provisions that would prohibit denial of adoption, custody or visitation rights or access to organ transplants or health care because of cannabis use. Amendments to expunge past marijuana convictions and to allow communities to opt out instead of having to opt in to the marijuana market both failed.
Prior to the floor vote, Republican House leadership told Republican lawmakers during a caucus meeting that they wanted all three bills to move to the Senate to keep options open in the days ahead. They warned that if none of the bills went forward, Initiative 190 would become the law of the land.
“If we do not pass anything during this legislative session, I-190 is what we get,” said House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings. “If we pass all three of these bills, they keep moving, providing opportunity for additional amendments and input. I want to make it clear that your leadership wants all three of these bills to progress.”
HB 670 and HB 707 passed along party lines, 67-33. HB 701 passed 59-41, with eight Republicans joining the Democrats in opposition. Democratic leaders have said they would like to see the Legislature implement something closer to the voter-passed initiative.
The House Appropriations Committee will have a hearing Wednesday about the three bills before a final floor vote later this week. After that, the bills will head to the Senate for consideration.
Petersen said despite frustrations with the current bills, he and others will continue to try to shape them into something closer to last year’s initiative.
“We’re going to keep fighting for amendments,” he said.
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