In Yellowstone County, a fight over recreational marijuana is on the primary ballot
On one of the last weekends in May leading up to the primary, a group of recreational marijuana supporters gathered outside a vape shop on a busy Billings street to remind people to vote on Tuesday.
Nick Tucker was among the crowd of people holding signs that read “Honk 4 Support” and “Recreation is Safe.” Tucker’s mom uses marijuana medicinally after having a stroke, and he owns the dispensary and cultivation business Like A Fox. He says he’s been waiting for recreational marijuana to be legalized since the 1990s.
"I’m not going to allow, just sit by and allow something we have waited for for so long just go away," he said.
In 2020, Yellowstone County was one of 27 counties in Montana where voters were in favor of I-190, the measure legalizing adult-use marijuana.
Then, last December, just weeks before recreational sales were set to begin, Yellowstone’s three county commissioners agreed unanimously to put the question – “Shall Yellowstone County overturn approval of all non-medical marijuana operations” – back up for a vote.
A question on primary ballots could essentially reverse the 2020 vote and block the recreational industry in Yellowstone County entirely.
“We’ve already proven on the medical side that it benefits all Montanans, and on the recreation side we’ve seen the good on the taxes that just started pouring in," Tucker said. "So I’m here to show support because I love that fact that it’s tested, taxed."
Tucker isn’t the only business owner concerned about Tuesday’s vote. Zach Schopp, the owner of Seeds of Life Labs and the president of Better for Montana, a group campaigning to keep legal recreational marijuana, says the prospect of legal recreation marijuana being overturned has been "anxiety-inducing."
“I had spent everything my business had earned, my life savings on scaling up and preparing and hiring and building buildings from the ground up and licensing," he said. "And then finding out that it could all be for nothing, you know, it was literally a punch in the gut."
Like many business owners in the industry, Schopp invested a lot of time and money into getting his medical marijuana operation ready for recreational sales – which, since they started on Jan. 1, have totaled more than $12.5 million in Yellowstone County, according to the Montana Department of Revenue.
Overturning that approval, Schopp says, would set the county back.
“There's hundreds of jobs on the line. There's millions of tax dollars on the line," he said. "Why is this an issue we have to revote on? Why are we even doing this again?"
After I-190 passed, a separate state law signed in 2021 added regulations to recreational marijuana sales and gave individual counties the ability to opt out, even if voters approved the original initiative.
In Yellowstone County, the measure passed by a narrow margin, with 50% of voters in favor, 49% opposed. Commissioners at first declined to put the issue up for another vote, but after Billings residents voted overwhelmingly to block recreational sales within city limits, the commission sent the question back to the public.
"I believe the voters have been better educated," Commissioner Jon Ostlund said before the vote on Dec. 14.
Steve Zabawa with the group Safe Montana was active in getting the question on primary ballots. He says the original push to legalize recreational pot over-emphasized the 20% state tax and where that revenue would be spent.
“The ballot deal was candy-coated, right? What I mean by that [voters] were promised a lot of things that aren't going to come true," he said. "So the voters voted for this big bag of money.
"Because they can't sell marijuana that it's going to be good for you. … So what's their only pitch? It's just about the money."
Zabawa says he doesn’t think recreational marijuana should be criminalized. But he doesn’t want to see Montana become the next Washington, or Colorado — states he says have had rising crime, homelessness and drug use since legalization.
A 2021 report from the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice shows that while some metrics – like poison control calls and DUIs related to marijuana – went up since recreational legalization in 2012, overall, it’s “difficult to draw conclusions about the potential effects of marijuana legalization … on public safety, public health or youth outcomes.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says most people who use marijuana don’t go on to use harder drugs.
Yellowstone County Commissioner Denis Pitman — who’s facing a Republican primary challenger in Tuesday’s election — says it’s too early to tell what, if any, impact legalization has had in the area.
“Maybe we're not even asking the right question, because what we're seeing with drug use in Yellowstone county is it’s multi faceted," he said. "The alcohol has been a huge thing. We've always had meth and and now fentanyl and heroin are in our community. So, it's really hard to isolate and say, it's just this product's fault for any of it.”
One of the main questions he and other county officials are asking is how much tax revenue is coming in: Voters in November approved a 3% local option tax on both medical and recreational marijuana, on top of the 4% and 20%, respectively, that go to the state.
Pitman says the county just got its first payment from sales — $78,000.
“This is the first time in our community that we've had this option to see and track what does the cannabis sales look like? How does it affect our community?" he said. "It's information we need, and we're gathering, but we're not spending the money ahead of time either.”
Zabawa says the negative impacts of legal adult-use marijuana outweigh the benefit of tax revenue for the county.
“Why do we want to say it's OK when it's not?" he said. "It’s a federal illegal Schedule 1 drug.
"That's really the bottom line and that's not going to change anytime soon, either.”
He’s confident Yellowstone County will flip, and that other counties and cities will follow: Granite County has a question on Tuesday’s ballot to ban recreational sales, and the city of Manhattan, near Bozeman, will vote whether to ban sales this fall.
Zach Schopp with Better for Montana says he knows some people will never support legalizing recreational marijuana. But he’s not out to try and change anyone’s mind.
“If you're uneducated or if you're living in the Nancy Reagan era, I don't have the time or energy to try and convince you," he said. "All I need is the majority to show up and vote again, which they already have, and they will.
"The majority of us want it, it should be there.”
No matter what the outcome of Tuesday’s election is, it may not be the last time Yellowstone County voters have a say on recreational marijuana.