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Lessons From Medical Marijuana Help Shape Montana Recreational Program

Pepper Petersen stands behind a counter supporting a neatly organized array of cannabis products.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Pepper Petersen, president of the Montana Cannabis Guild, poses in a Helena medical dispensary on March 17, 2021.

It took more than a decade interspersed with multiple ballot initiatives and courtroom debates to set Montana’s policy for regulating medical marijuana. State lawmakers are now seeking to avoid those past pitfalls as they face the challenge of regulating the state’s fledgling recreational marijuana industry.

Pepper Petersen rattles off marijuana strains in a Helena medical dispensary.

“Lime Haze. Gelato Zkittlez Cake. And of course, Mendolicious, it’s very popular."

Jars of the plant line the room, while glass cases contain thumbnail-sized chunks of concentrated cannabis and edibles, including pot-infused olive oil.

“This is what most dispensaries in Montana look like, for the most part," Petersen says.

Petersen, president of the Montana Cannabis Guild, helped get a multi-million dollar campaign for adult-use recreational marijuana approved for the November ballot.

He says lawmakers have come to respect the state’s medical program in recent years after a rocky start. Now, Petersen expects the impending recreational system to solidify the marijuana industry as a serious economic player in the state.

“They look at our point-of-sale system and they look at our inventory, and they say ‘OK this is realistic.’ And when we’re bringing in, as an industry, $50 million in taxes per year, it’s going to be a lot easier to have those relationships.”

That would be no small victory, considering Montana’s fraught history with marijuana regulations since voters approved the medical program in 2004.

Critics say it lacked guardrails. After lawmakers passed legislation restricting access to the drug, and subsequent court battles, voters in 2016 outlined new rules for medical use.

The Treasure State now joins more than a dozen others to have legalized recreational marijuana. The Montana Legislature will guide the state’s next steps.

At risk, says Democratic Missoula Sen. Diane Sands, is the state passing a flawed system like Montana’s first medical marijuana program.

“The THC levels, the licensing requirements, background checks. There are a lot of technical issues involved and the Legislature for the most part has wanted to hide its head in the sand," Sands says.

In 2019, a proposal by Sands to study the topic of recreational cannabis in Montana was rejected in committee.

Now halfway through the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers are starting the debate on recreational marijuana in committee hearings. Three proposals differing in restrictions and tax revenue allocations have been introduced.

Bigfork Republican Rep. Mark Noland led lawmakers in a three-hour committee work session last week to pour over one of the bills: a 144-page draft of recreational marijuana regulations.

“When I visited with leadership about how to handle this, they said, 'Good luck,'” Noland says.

The policy, carried by Missoula Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins, has backing from the governor’s office. It creates a framework which Hopkins says builds on the current, improved medical system after lawmakers learned "that a completely open, come and get it, ring-a-dinner-bell program is terrible in the state of Montana. It was an abject train wreck."

Kate Cholewa with the Montana Cannabis Industry Association says nobody expected a formal market after medical marijuana was legalized.

“I don’t think anybody thought there was anything to deal with. You know, there's going to be some nice old hippies growing cannabis for some sick people," Cholewa says.

But, Cholewa says so-called “cannabis caravans” started traveling across Montana a few years later, offering one-day clinics in hotels and conference centers for residents looking to become patients. More than 19,000 people had medical cards by the middle of 2010, a 167% jump over six months.

“People coming in in 2011, everybody knew something was going to be done," Cholewa says.

Lawmakers introduced bills to regulate medical marijuana that year. Then, as they debated an ultimately ill-fated effort to repeal the law altogether, federal agents raided dispensaries across Montana.

Marijuana remains illegal to sell or use under federal law.

Petersen says the industry reeled as shop owners were arrested and operations were shut down.

“I think that anybody that was in the cannabis orbit at that time was concerned that they were going to go to prison. It was a bad scene for everybody," Petersen says.

Karmen Hanson with the National Conference of State Legislatures says Montana’s in a strong position to establish a recreational program after all of its growing pains with medical marijuana.

“Montana, that is definitely one of the more unique situations that I've seen after tracking this for 15-plus years," Hanson says.

Despite that, Hanson says there’s no correct way to legalize adult-use cannabis.

“What happens in Colorado, their model may not work in Montana. Whatever happens in Oregon may not work in Montana. There's just so many different perspectives involved, and it’s kind of the beauty of anything that goes through the legislative process. It's a process," Hanson says.

That process comes with a time crunch. As legislators and industry advocates try to craft a policy that can avoid the turbulence seen during the early days of Montana’s medical program, any bill outlining a recreational framework must pass out of the House next week to meet a legislative deadline.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.