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Special election on recreational marijuana could flip Dawson County from 'red' to 'green'

California's new marijuana laws clearly state that cannabis is not illegal to possess in prison, an appeals court rules, in a new legal wrinkle to  marijuana's changing status. Here, cannabis is seen for sale at a West Hollywood store.

Voters in Dawson County in eastern Montana are deciding this week whether to reverse the ban on recreational marijuana sales there.

Dawson is one of 28 counties that isn’t planning on allowing recreational sales when they begin on Jan. 1. Voters there rejected the 2020 ballot initiative legalizing adult-use dispensaries.

“It was a huge setback,” said Kaari Fulton, who cultivates and sells medical marijuana at Armadillo Buds in Glendive.

Fulton got licensed in late November 2020 with the hope of also selling recreational products after the passage ofinitiative 190 legalized them for adults over 21. But under a new state law passed earlier this year, only counties that approved the initiative – or later opted in – would allow sales.

“It really wasn’t heavily opposed [in Dawson County],” Fulton said. The initiative failed in Dawson County 53% to 46% – a difference of 341 votes.

“It is a very, very conservative county also,” she said.

Fulton acknowledges people might have concerns about recreational marijuana; she herself was against allowing medical marijuana in the state when it was up for a vote in 2004.

“I voted against it because I didn’t understand it enough,” she said. Through her work as a massage therapist, she saw the benefits medical marijuana had for some of her clients. It’s why she opened Armadillo Buds, and why she wants Dawson County to expand legalization to recreational sales.

Fulton circulated a petitionthis fall to get the county to opt into the state’s recreational marijuana program. She collected nearly 1,400 signatures, enough to trigger a special election.

Ballots went out earlier this month for the all-mail election. Voters are asked to decide two questions: Whether to approve the sale of marijuana at medical, adult-use and combined-use marijuana dispensaries; and whether to impose a local 3% tax on all marijuana sales effective April 2, 2022.

Fulton said she’s optimistic the county will flip green.

“It’s just like anything new,” she said. “It’s really hard to understand it, until you start learning about it.”

Ballots need to be returned by Thursday and will be canvassed the following week. If Dawson County voters pass the referendum, Fulton will still have to wait 18 months to get licensed for a recreational business, but in the meantime will still provide medical products. The Montana law passed this spring limits license applications to existing medical marijuana providers – meaning those licensed before Nov. 3, 2020. Fulton got her license 27 days after the newly established cutoff.

“Not being a prior provider for medical, and a red county,” Fulton said, “it was a double whammy.”

If this month’s ballot initiative fails, though, Fulton and owners of other medical dispensaries in red counties that missed that crucial cutoff date will have to cease operations after Dec. 31.

“The only thing we could do as a family and a business is move to a green county,” she said.

Nadya joined Yellowstone Public Radio as news director in October 2021. Before coming to YPR, she spent six years as digital news editor/reporter for the NPR affiliate in Wichita, Kansas, where her work earned several Kansas Association of Broadcasters awards and a regional Edward R. Murrow award for Excellence in Social Media. Originally from Texas, Nadya has lived and worked in Colorado, Illinois, Washington, D.C.; and North Dakota. She lives in Billings with her cat, Dragon, and dog, Trooper, and enjoys hiking, crocheting, and traveling as often as possible.