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A bill to implement Montana’s adult-use marijuana program is on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk for a signature. 

On Tuesday, House Bill 701, introduced by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-East Missoula, and backed by Gianforte, passed its third and final reading in the House on a bipartisan 67-32 vote, ending a month of debate in Helena about how to implement Initiative 190, which legalized adult-use cannabis last November

HB 701 was one of three marijuanan bills that went to the Senate earlier this month, each offering a different vision of implementation, but it was the only one to return from the upper chamber for a final vote. When it was first introduced, the bill was blasted by conservation groups because it directed most tax revenue from adult-use cannabis into the state’s General Fund rather than to land conservation, as had been suggested in I-190. Republicans noted that only the Legislature can allocate tax revenues. The Senate nonetheless restored some marijuana revenue to conservation funding, specifically that for Habitat Montana, a program run by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to pay for land easements.

On Monday, some House Republicans balked at that decision and voted the amended Senate version down. The bill was almost sent to a conference committee where lawmakers could try and hash out a compromise, but Hopkins was able to convince fellow Republicans to bring it back to the floor. On Tuesday it was brought up for a second reading, where Hopkins reminded hesitant Republicans that if it failed again, I-190’s language would by default become the law of the land and adult-use marijuana would be implemented without their input. 

“We need to have this in place before we walk out of this building. If we don’t, we will regret it,” Hopkins said. “When we came into this session, we were not asked to figure out if marijuana should be legal or not — that’s already happened — but we were tasked with figuring out how to make it safe.”

During a brief floor debate, some Republicans raised concerns about a local option sales tax that was added by the Senate. On top of a 20% state tax, local communities will be able to add a 3% tax of their own. Some Republicans worried that could push people into the illegal market or, perhaps worse in some eyes, pave the way for a statewide sales tax. Hopkins dismissed the latter concern, noting that the marijuana tax would be no different from alcohol or cigarette taxes. 

The bill passed second reading 62-38, and then a third and final reading 67-32. 

Pepper Petersen, president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, said the final bill isn’t perfect, but “we can work with it.” He was particularly dismayed at a provision that will require counties that did not support I-190 during the November 2020 election to have another ballot vote to decide whether to opt in. About half of Montana’s counties voted against legalization, while the vast majority of the state’s population lives in counties that did back it. 

Besides marijuana advocates, conservation groups also celebrated the bill’s passage. 

“Passing House Bill 701 isn’t just a victory for Montana’s state parks, trails, public access, working lands, and habitat. It’s a historic investment in the future of communities across the state and a commitment to conserving our outdoor way of life for generations to come,” said Montana Wilderness Association State Policy Director Noah Marion. “We encourage Governor Gianforte to sign it into law without delay.”

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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.