As revenue soars, recreational marijuana is back on some Montanans' ballots
When Kendrick Richmond and his wife moved to Philipsburg, Montana, from South Carolina in late 2020, they had no expectation of getting involved in the state’s marijuana industry.
But when Top Shelf Botanicals, a small dispensary outside of town, began selling to recreational customers in January 2022, Kendrick was the first person through the door, and asked about a part time job.
“I was the first customer," he said. "First invoice out of the store has my name on it. And so like the next day I came in and said, 'Are y’all hiring?'”
After hitting it off with the company’s CEO, he became manager of the Philipsburg store. But the future of the business was upended when a campaign to repeal recreational cannabis sales in Granite County was launched.
“I started to see all this happen, and the signs come out. My first thought is, this is Montana, I thought this was all voted on,” Richmond said.
Two years after Montana voters statewide legalized recreational marijuana some communities are still fighting over the issue.
In 2020, almost 57% of Montana voters statewide voted in favor of a ballot initiative legalizing recreational cannabis sales. The subsequent state law governing legalization allowed recreational sales in counties where a majority of voters approved of the initiative, and banned sales in counties where a majority opposed the measure.
In June, Granite County became the first, and so far only, county in Montana to successfully opt out of recreational cannabis sales, after initially voting in favor in 2020.
Over the last two years, other counties and local governments have also voted on whether to flip-flop. Dawson County opted to turn green last December, and an effort in June to turn Yellowstone County red failed when 58% of voters elected to keep it green.
The debate in Granite County isn’t settled. After changing course to ban sales in the county earlier this year, Top Shelf Botanicals’ Kendrick Richmond worked with allies to gather enough signatures to put the question in front of voters again in November.
“Hopefully as the kids say, let’s run it back and see how it goes," Richmond said.
Residents in the towns of Great Falls, Manhattan and West Yellowstone will also see ballot questions of whether or not to ban the zoning of dispensaries.
"This is definitely unique, from my experience, to see so many opt-in, opt-out, opt-in."
This much back-and-forth in Montana’s new marijuana industry stands out to national observers.
“This is definitely unique, from my experience, to see so many opt-in, opt-out, opt-in," said Jared Moffat, the state campaigns director with the Marijuana Policy Project. "Normally we just have one election cycle, some of the municipalities say we’re going to take a while and sit it out.”
Much of the organized opposition to the sale of marijuana in Montana comes from a Billings-based political action committee. Safe Montana supports prohibition of marijuana and has been active in the Great Falls and Granite County referendums this fall.
Steve Zabawa, head of Safe Montana, says the group is prepared to keep their fight going even if they lose this November.
“Yeah, we’re in it for the long run," Zabawa said. "These are just little battles."
Pepper Petersen with the Montana Cannabis Guild doesn’t see this constant slate of referendums continuing past the current election cycle.
“There’s only a certain amount of people willing to go out and do this. And if you go out and gather signatures and you lose, you're not coming back again very quickly," Petersen said.
Petersen says the focus for much of the Montana cannabis industry is on the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January. He says cannabis business owners want to see a bill to clarify some points of confusion on testing, administrative oversight, and penalties in the state's first recreational use law, as well as an extension on the moratorium for new licenses.
“The future of marijuana in Montana is business, not political anymore, but it's going to become very unsexy and very mundane and bureaucratic.”
“The future of marijuana in Montana is business, not political anymore,” Petersen said. “But it's going to become very unsexy and very mundane and bureaucratic.”
Things might settle down after this election cycle, but for Kendrick Richmond in Philipsburg, winning the vote in November and keeping his business open is the main priority. Sept. 4 was the last day the dispensary was able to sell to recreational customers. Richmond says they made about $1,200 their last day of recreational sales, before dropping down to just $50 the next day, with only medical customers.
“We’re not gonna go anywhere," he said. "Best of my understanding is we’re gonna grind it out for two months.”
Richmond is prepared to dig in and hope the vote goes his way on Nov. 8.
“I can’t leave this place, dude, it’s just too awesome,” he said.
Cannabis sales top $26 million for the third month straight
September marked the third straight month cannabis sales in Montana topped $26 million, according to the Montana Department of Revenue, which oversees much of the state’s marijuana industry.
Those sales bring the year-to-date total to almost $228 million since recreational sales became legal on Jan. 1, generating more than $30 million in tax revenue for the state.
The earnings have been driven by a steady increase in recreational sales each month, which has seen revenue grow as medical marijuana sales have declined each month.
If trends continue, cannabis sales could exceed $300 million by the end of the year, which would surpass the initial forecast of $285 million made by the 2021 Legislature.
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