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Uncertainty Swirls Around Marijuana Legalization In Montana

Voters next month will decide if Montana should become the latest state to legalize the use and sale of recreational marijuana. A pair of measures to open the state’s cannabis market to adults 21 and older appear on ballots.

Proponents say legalizing pot would not only advance personal liberty, but also turbo-charge the state’s economy. Critics, however, say the risks far outweigh the potential benefits.

Dave Lewis may seem an unlikely advocate for legalization of recreational marijuana in Montana.

For starters, "I don’t use it. I’ve never used it," he says.

Lewis served in both Montana’s legislative chambers, led two executive departments and worked as state budget director under three governors. Now retired, he’s a policy adviser for New Approach Montana, the group working to legalize recreational marijuana in the state. 

Lewis says he knows a good deal when he sees one. 

"I got to looking at it and I came at it from the economic side, I guess, of suddenly realizing like a flash of light that, my goodness, this thing could really create a lot of jobs and certainly a lot of revenue for the state."

He’s referring to Initiative 190. It establishes the foundation to begin recreational marijuana sales in Montana. All sales would include a 20 percent tax. It would also allow for the resentencing or expungement of marijuana-related crimes.

Its companion piece, CI-118, would amend the state constitution to set the minimum buying age at 21.

What if 118 fails, but the legalization initiative itself passes? A spokesperson for New Approach Montana says it would only lead to a delay in implementing the policy. Both the Montana Secretary of State and the Justice Departments declined to speculate on what would happen in that circumstance.

New Approach Montana recently commissioned the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research to determine retail pot’s potential economic impact. UM’s BBER estimates total market sales could climb to $260 million by 2026. It says pot sales would simultaneously generate over $236 million in tax revenue.

Steve Zabawa isn’t impressed. To him its "a drop in the bucket in the big picture."

Zabawa is with Wrong for Montana, a group which opposes the ballot measures. Zabawa’s group has filed a complaint with the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices asking for one of New Approach Montana major financial backers, North Fund, to disclose its donors. According to reporting from the Montana Free Press, Commissioner Jeff Mangan has requested North Fund reveal its donors, and the group is appealing that request. 

In New Approach Montana’s effort to show how much money marijuana could bring into the state, they’ve spent big. Campaign finance reports show the group paid the University of Montana $30,000 for cannabis revenue and market research. Overall, they’ve spent more than $5 million to support the two questions voters see on the ballot. 

Zabawa, a long time marijuana critic, says smokable pot and cannabis-infused edibles are now loaded with potent amounts of the psychoactive ingredient THC. He adds that states that have legalized cannabis sales experience higher rates of crime, drug abuse, car accidents and exacerbated mental health problems. According to reports that have examined these claims where recreational marijuana is legalized, results differ state by state.

"If it was bringing in a billion dollars, ok maybe it’s worth it. But when it only brings in one little drop into the bucket and you’re creating all these other ills, I don’t think it’s worth it."

Dave Lewis' reaction?

"My goodness, $50 million a year is a drop? I don’t think so.”

"If I were a new governor, or trying to figure out how to balance the budget, I’d be real happy to see $52 million a year coming in."

Under I-190, 10.5 percent of tax revenue generated from recreational marijuana sales would go to the state’s general fund. The rest would be placed into special revenue accounts for veterans services, health care, local governments and conservation projects. 

That earned it an enthusiastic endorsement from four Montana public lands organizations. That coalition estimates tax revenue from marijuana sales would generate at least $18 million annually. Those funds would be used to purchase conservation easements, support non-game wildlife, state parks and trails and recreation. 

A dispensary worker vending jars of cannabis.
Credit iStock
A dispensary worker vending jars of cannabis.

A portion of pot sale revenues would also be set aside for substance abuse treatment programs.

"It doesn’t give me a great deal of comfort, because the proof really is going to be in the pudding," says Lenette Kosovitch, CEO Billings Rimrock Foundation, Montana’s largest addiction treatment center.

Kosovitch is a solid 'no' against loosening restrictions on marijuana. She insists it is a so-called gateway drug that commonly leads people to abuse harder drugs.

Kosovitch says the proposal offers no specifics on how 190’s revenue would be used to help substance abuse treatment efforts.

"It’s some 67 pages; and finally when you get to page 39 there’s merely a dozen words that addresses how the taxes will be levied to prevention and care of people. It’s really hard to think of anything but, is this just a checkmark to get some people satisfied."

Marijuana advocates point out that if Montana voters decide to legalize pot, state lawmakers will have plenty of time to hammer out revenue details during next year’s legislative session.

But that doesn’t sway the Montana Chamber of Commerce, which in a September press release expressed its opposition to the campaign to legalize cannabis for recreational use. 

Chamber Chair Richard Miltenberger says, "We had a lot of discussion internally and it was a strong feeling that we needed to stick with our existing medical marijuana system and not open this new door."

According to Miltenberger, the Chamber is partially concerned that legal recreational marijuana sales would siphon off a portion of Montanans’ already-limited disposable income to unhealthy habits. More than that, he’s worried about possible impacts to the state’s workforce. 

"The last thing they need is more people coming in, frankly, that are high. Right now there’s already a bit of a problem. It’s not huge, but we hear from our colleagues in surrounding states — Washington, Colorado — that it gets significantly worse when this door is opened."

Again, New Approach Montana’s Dave Lewis.

"That was an amazing letter they wrote which basically said, 'we just don’t think that Montana workers are responsible enough to use marijuana and still get to work.' My goodness, what do they think about alcohol?

Recreational marijuana critics say if cannabis is legalized, more kids will start using the drug. 

The Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council’s Doyle Forestall says that was also a concern before pot hit that state’s retail shelves in 2016. 

Connoisseur quality cannabis flowers.
twigymuleford/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Connoisseur quality cannabis flowers.

According to Forrestal, those concerns weren't warranted.

"No. In fact the survey that the state did through the division of criminal justice just looking at youth usage and attitudes from ages 12 to 17, that they did not see an increase in youth usage. In fact, the study I saw from 2018 actually showed a slight decrease in adolescent use."

Forrestal says tax revenue from Colorado’s marijuana sales funds effective drug treatment, education and prevention programs. She urges states thinking about legalizing cannabis to carefully analyze and plan ahead.

Montana State Senator Diane Sands agrees.

"I do think this is an issue we shouldn’t stick our head in the sand about. I think it’s one we need to confront up front and deal with. Unfortunately, we chose not to."

Montana’s had a long and rocky history with marijuana. Voters adopted the state’s first medical marijuana law in 2004. By 2011 legislators restricted the program and eventually passed a bill that they said curbed abuses by patients, providers and even doctors. Advocates, however, called it draconian and said it made it next to impossible to access medical marijuana. After years of legal wrangling voters eventually approved an initiative that reopened marijuana dispensaries.

Missoula Democrat Diane Sands says lawmakers are as ill-prepared now to deal with marijuana policy as they were back in 2004. Last year she asked the Legislature to study the implications of legalizing recreational cannabis. That request was promptly spiked.

"There’s no way that if this initiative passes that it’s going to be so clean there’s not going to be need for additional legislative consideration of related issues. And we will not have a Legislature that has a depth of knowledge in the workings or issues around recreational marijuana."

Beau Kilmer is director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center in California, which researches how policy can address drug-related issues. He says researchers are trying to pin down how consumption habits change where pot is legalized. Kilmer adds that research in early adopter states like Oregon, Colorado and Washington is finding large price declines after legalization, which could impact revenue from sales. 

"And so that's why in general, you need to be pretty skeptical of a lot of these projections, because they don't account for the price drops and they don't necessarily account for what could happen if there were changes at the federal level."

Under federal law it is listed as a Schedule 1 illegal substance.

For example, Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris is promising a Biden-Harris administration would decriminalize marijuana. If that were to happen, Beau Kilmer says the cannabis industry could rapidly concentrate

"Now, for example, a colleague of mine has estimated that you could produce all of the THC that's consumed in the United States on a couple dozen farms."

RAND Drug Policy Research Center Director Beau Kilmer says reasonable people can disagree about cannabis policy.

"So, I think as Montana and as other places have serious discussions about cannabis legalization, I think it's important to kind of put out there what you value and kind of what outcomes you care most about, because I just think that ultimately it's going to lead to a more productive discussion."
Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.