Pair of measures would legalize marijuana in Montana

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Marijuana is back on the ballot for the third time in the last five election cycles. But this year, Montanans will decide for the first time whether to follow states like Colorado and Washington in legalizing use for all adults.

The issue comes in the form of complementary ballot initiatives I-190 and CI-118. I-190 creates the rules for a recreational marijuana system in Montana, including a 20% tax. It also allows each county the option to prohibit dispensaries in their county.

CI-118 would amend the Montana Constitution to allow the state to set the minimum buying age to 21. If both pass, Montana would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana.

New Approach Montana, a group founded in January 2019 by Montana political veterans Ted Dick and Pepper Petersen, is running the pro-legalization effort. After seeing a decline of tax revenue from previous economic drivers like energy production and mining, the two men asked Montana’s Office of Budget and Program Planning to study the economic benefits of legalized marijuana. The office estimated that retail taxes on recreational marijuana could generate upward of $38.5 million a year by 2025.

“This is a substantial amount of funding,” Petersen said, adding that the next steps were clear. “We wrote our own law — we have a uniquely Montana approach.”

But before that economic windfall could happen, New Approach needed to succeed where the last effort to legalize in 2016 fell short: qualifying for the ballot. The group pumped more than $140,000 into signature-gathering efforts.

Dick’s and Petersen’s organization plans to pour much more money into the effort, including a whopping $2.3 million in advertisements, most of which are slated for late October and early November.

The effort has been funded almost entirely by two donors: New Approach’s national Political Action Committee, which has donated over $140,000, and a DC-based organization called the North Fund, which has given more than $1.6 million. The campaign has generated more than $2.8 million.

For much of the summer, no official opposition organized to oppose legalization. That changed in mid-September.

The Montana Contractors Association, a group representing Montana building contractors and suppliers, released a video on Sept. 8 outlining its arguments, based on safety and workforce concerns.

The WFM campaign is launching its opposition with social media ads on Google and Facebook, with financial help from the national anti-legalization outfit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Zabawa confirmed that his organization plans to roll out ads on Montana television networks in the weeks before the election. He would not comment on how much funding the group had to fight legalization, but the group will need to report its donors at the end of September.

In addition to the Montana Contractors Association, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Bankers Association and the Motor Carriers Association have all announced support for WFM and plan to contribute financially, Zabawa said.

Petersen rejected Zabawa’s claims, arguing that, by raising the buying age to 21 and mirroring the medical marijuana infrastructure, New Approach was ensuring safety.

“Steve has been a thorn in the side of marijuana supporters for years” Peterson said. “For whatever reason, he’s got a personal jihad against them. I’m surprised that he actually believes the things that he says. It’s ridiculous. It’s just so objectively out of touch with reality.”

Still, some of those groups Zabawa opposed in the past are also worried about recreational marijuana. Smaller Montana-based dispensaries worry their businesses will be swamped by larger, out-of-state companies.

Michaela Schager, owner of Montana Medicinals, a family-owned medical marijuana dispensary in Missoula, said she was grateful for the initiative’s structure. If passed, business licenses would be issued Jan. 1, 2022, with registered Montana dispensaries first in line. These dispensaries would have one year to sell without out-of-state competition, but she acknowledged that, “These out-of-state conglomerates are going to provide a lot of competition down the road,” Schager said. “At some point, that is going to be a formidable concern.”

Petersen said there was no cause for concern.

“All the jobs are going to be here. All the tax revenue is going to be here,” he said. “Montana is not this big shining apple for marijuana conglomerates in terms of revenue generated. There may be some bleeding off initially, but that seems to level off, according to Colorado models.”

Petersen and New Approach based much of the bills’ infrastructure on Colorado, one of the only states that correctly estimated its projected tax revenue. He stressed that he thinks Montana is a big enough state for both commercial and medical suppliers.

“I don’t think there should be any angst between recreational and medical dispensaries,” he said. “I mean, it’s like, Burger King is right next to McDonald’s, and they all do pretty well. There’s lots of room in Montana for all of them.”

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