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Montana marijuana bill draft raises questions, concerns
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Montana marijuana bill draft raises questions, concerns

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Montana Sporting Coalition rally

About 20 hunters and anglers appeared on the capitol steps on Thursday for the Montana Sporting Coalition rally. The coalition, made up of 11 conservation groups, opposed lawmakers removing tax revenue allocations from recreational marijuana for public lands. 

The hulking cannabis implementation bill, while still in draft form, took less than a day to stir up opposition against its proposed tax revenue allocations, while the medical marijuana community has its eye on where the regulatory lines will eventually fall. 

The 264-page draft made available Wednesday provided an outline that's been under construction behind the scenes for months and will be malleable until it's signed into law.

But consternation among the conservation crowd led to a Montana Sporting Coalition rally on the Capitol steps Thursday, led by the Montana Wildlife Federation, to protest the proposed funding allocation in the draft.

Conservation groups turned out for the legalization ballot initiative that dedicated roughly $18 million in tax revenue on a 20% tax for public lands and conservation easements, but the draft that surfaced Wednesday allocates less than $2 million for state parks, trails and nongame wildlife, leaving new access funding out entirely. 

Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels summarizes the day's news from the Montana Legislative session.

"Last fall, many of us supported the legalization and conservation funding ballot initiatives because Montana's great outdoors needs critical investment. It's a huge industry for this state," Tom Puchlerz, president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, said at the rally.

The funding dedication from the initiative is snagged up in court. Opponents to legalization sued on constitutional grounds — ballot initiatives can't allocate tax revenue, only the Legislature holds that authority — and the Lewis and Clark County District Court judge presiding over the case has stalled the proceedings to let the Legislature make the first move. 

Asked how the Montana Wildlife Federation reconciles their efforts to restore the easement funding when the court challenge is underway, conservation director Nick Gevock conceded Thursday that only the Legislature can appropriate funding, but added that the voters' intentions were a clear message to lawmakers where the money ought to land. 

"That was the most orchestrated campaign on this issue I've ever seen, and we talked about the fact that the Legislature has to appropriate the money, we understand that," Gevock said. "The people spoke very clearly as to where they wanted that funding to go."

Democrats, too, said in recent weeks their priority in implementing a recreational marijuana program is to keep the legislation aligned with the initiative 57% of voters passed last year.

"This initiative passed with margins that people like me can only dream about," House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said in a press briefing Thursday. "Public lands and recreational marijuana are more popular than most of us in this building. So we still want to fight for the intention of voters on where the money goes and the policy. Republicans don’t seem interested in that."

Election 2020 Marijuana Legalization

Montana Advanced Caregivers owner Richard Abromeit talks about different strains of marijuana stored in a refrigerator at the Billings medical marijuana dispensary on Nov. 11. 

The bill draft's regulatory framework has also raised questions from the medical marijuana community, with constraints on everything from labeling to where cannabis can be grown.

Kate Cholewa, government affairs representative for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, said, while the bill itself is still only a draft, certain provisions in the proposal bear some "oppositional dynamics."

"Of course we’re legalizing it, everyone can do this now, yet still throughout the bill we’re still imposing stigma," Cholewa said.

The proposal allows a wholesale market, meaning providers can buy product from other companies and sell it on their shelves. But the labeling is allowed to have simple black-and-white lettering for the product name, essentially prohibiting anything unique to the company that produced the product. 

Employees, too, will be subject to background checks along with approval by the Montana Department of Revenue, which will oversee the recreational marijuana program, although its not clear from the draft what could disqualify those employees, Cholewa said. 

"So many times we talk about, when are we going to move on from people who have former charges in something that we’re letting everyone do," Cholewa said. "We're still keeping them stigmatized. Are we changing our attitudes about this or not?"

The draft also bans providers from growing outdoors, as well as home grows for consumers. Any cannabis transported in a vehicle must be locked in a container in the trunk. The limitations on THC content in the cannabis is also a diversion from the initiative voters passed last year.

Republicans who are leading the implementation effort this year have maintained safety is the highest priority, while Gov. Greg Gianforte staked out tax revenues early for drug addiction and substance abuse treatment. 

The bill has yet to be officially introduced, and may see changes before it reaches committee. 

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