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Montana Marijuana Implementation Bill Moves Forward In Senate, With Changes Making It Closer To What Voters Approved



Lawmakers are restoring funding for conservation programs, allowing home cultivation and making sure legalization will continue even if certain provisions are struck down in court.

By Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Daily Montanan

They may have just missed 4/20, by which point they had hoped to see House Bill 701 hit the floor, but a committee of Senate lawmakers succeeded Wednesday evening in passing a heavily amended version of a bill to implement and tax recreational marijuana in Montana, one of the final priorities of a legislative session nearing its close.

Among the many changes that the Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Laws made to the bill before passing it on a voice vote is to partially restore some funding in the bill for conservation and land easements—allocations that existed in Ballot Initiative 190, a legalization proposal that voters approved last year, but that received pushback from Republicans who argued that only the Legislature has the right to make spending decisions, not the voters. The version of the flagship pot bill that emerged from committee Wednesday also allows for limited home-grow of marijuana, some local taxation and provides a compromise on the sticky issue of a locality’s right to refuse to authorize recreational marijuana.

An amendment that lawmakers on the committee passed Wednesday first directs marijuana revenues—recreational pot will be taxed at 20 percent, as it stands now—to the Department of Revenue, then $6 million to substance abuse prevention program called the HEART Fund, of which a chunk goes to tribal healthcare, with 20 percent of the remaining sum going to Habitat Montana, a program to fund conservation easements. From there, 4 percent each of the remainder goes to parks, trail maintenance and non-game wildlife habitats, with several hundred thousand dollars then going to care for veterans and programs within the Department of Justice, followed, ultimately, by the general fund.

There is at least one caveat: The money wouldn’t become available until 2024, a compromise introduced by Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls. In the first year of the program, parks, trail maintenance and non-game wildlife protection accounts would split $2 million, and beginning in 2023, Habitat Montana would receive around $5.4 million. That appropriation would continue in 2024 and beyond, with the conservation easement program receiving 20 percent of post-HEART Fund revenues, or, according to current projections, around $5.4 million. At that point, the parks, trails and non-game wildlife accounts would receive 4 percent of the remaining funds each.

This means that the bill would allocate money out of the current biennium. The Legislature in one session can’t bind the hands of their successors in the next session—so while many of the same lawmakers may still be in Helena in two years, lawmakers next session could always choose a different way to spend marijuana revenues.

The language, part of a large amendment brought by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, and developed in concert with Democrats on the committee, finds an uneasy middle ground between I-190, which would have put almost half of marijuana revenues into conservation and park programs, and HB701 as initially introduced, which made only small investments in outdoor recreation and conservation and directed the bulk of pot monies to the general fund. It could mean millions more in funding for programs that environmental and hunting groups have advocated for all session, assuming the changes last through the rest of the process. It would also boost funding for veterans’ care, another proposed allocation in the ballot initiative.

“Trying to stay as true to the initiative as possible has been our priority,” said Jacobson.

“And the fact that we have to have enough votes to get this out of here in some way that makes sense for Montanans,” said Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour, D-East Helena, one of the other Democrats on the committee.

Bringing HB701’s funding language closer to I-190 has been the top priority of Democrats during debate on the many marijuana implementation bills this session. Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, HB701’s sponsor, said the new language could help bring minority lawmakers into the fold, but that he and other Republicans also acknowledge the need for continued funding in programs like Habitat Montana.

“We obviously have conversations on our ability to be able to fund all of their requests, and we especially have a conversation around being able to fund the maintenance portions for projects within Habitat Montana (in other appropriations bills),” Hopkins said. “And then, also, it allows us to work a little bit more closely with our Democratic friends.”

The amendment from Ellsworth also would ask the Supreme Court to appoint a judge specifically to handle expungement and resentencing of past marijuana provisions, which is allowed for under HB701. And, though some Republicans were itching to impose THC limits and nix the ability for recreational users to grow marijuana at home after a presentation earlier in the process from a drug enforcement officer from Colorado who warned lawmakers of the dangers of smelly basement grow-ops and marijuana-induced psychosis, the committee ultimately left those components largely intact. Recreational marijuana under the bill can have up to two plants per person and four per household.

Finally, the bill still officially bans the outdoor growing of cannabis, a provision requested by the hemp industry, but the amendment allows for the grandfathering of existing outdoor operations.

The bill first came to the Senate in early April, and has undergone a series of protracted deliberations alongside other proposals for legalizing marijuana that the Senate panel has gradually picked off. At each stage, concepts have been shuffled around or amended to address concerns from an expanse of stakeholders and an existing medical marijuana industry sensitive to change. It seemed for most of the process that Republicans would be unwilling to restore environmental funding, despite repeated pleas from advocates to follow the language of the initiative. Exactly what changed isn’t entirely clear, and Ellsworth, who led the Senate’s marijuana committee, declined to comment on the deliberations that led to the language approved Wednesday.

Other changes that the Senate committee approved includes a compromise on the issue of local excise taxes, which were allowed in the first draft of HB701 but removed in the House. After Wednesday’s amendments, municipalities can levy a separate excise tax of up to 3 percent on marijuana if approved by the voters.

The bill will also strike a balance on the county option. At first, HB701 would require every county to opt-in to adult-use marijuana, which some in the industry feared could lead to local governments deciding to shutter existing medical marijuana businesses. But Republicans in the Senate including Ellsworth worried that this would constitute a takings by the government, so an amendment that failed in the House was revived and added to the bill. Now, the half of Montana counties that supported I-190 will have adult-use unless voters decide to opt out, while counties that voted against I-190 will still have to pass local initiatives opting in if they want recreational marijuana.

The amendment also fixes a technical issue that arrangement created: At first, tribes, which as federal entities cannot license dispensaries on their land, would only be able to operate dispensaries within a 25-mile radius. But that would mean many tribes could only operate dispensaries in counties that did not support I-190 and presumably would not opt-in to the program; so, the amendment Wednesday expanded that boundary to 150 miles.

The final piece to fall into place was how to handle the problem of a legal challenge to either the bill or the underlying initiative. When Ellsworth’s amendment debuted early Wednesday, it contained language that would void all of HB701 if any part of I-190 was found unconstitutional, which some fear could be a possibility given the ballot language allocating funding. I-190—and HB701—also contain provisions restricting the ability to own dispensaries to Montana residents, language that in other states the court has challenged as illegal protectionism. Some members of the marijuana industry feared that language amounted to a poison pill that could tank recreational marijuana if the program is challenged.

But by the time the ink dried on the amendment, the language was updated to explicitly protect the overall legalization effort if the funding provisions of I-190 are declared void or the court overturns any other sections of the initiative, so long as those sections aren’t integral to the function of the program.

The committee’s work Wednesday addressed most of the concerns that J.D. “Pepper” Petersen, a dispensary owner and Montana Cannabis Guild President who wrote I-190, had on that front, he told the Daily Montanan.

From here, lawmakers will need to rush the bill through the Senate and then send it back to the House so lawmakers there can vote to concur with the Senate amendments. They’ll have to walk a tight-rope, and possibly suspend rules, in order to make it happen, but Cohenour said she’s quite sure that her counterparts in the House can offer their votes.

“The biggest thing is trying to stay true to the people of Montana,” Jacobson said. “Given the circumstances, we did as good a job as we could, and I think we met that expectation. Like anything, this isn’t over. We’re gonna see what loopholes, what bugs we can fix. But I think we’ve got a pretty solid start.”

This story was first published by Daily Montanan.

Virginia Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Bill In Ceremonial Event—Even Though It’s Already Enacted

Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.

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Senate’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal Aims To Let Researchers Study Marijuana From Dispensaries



Senate leaders released a massive and long-anticipated infrastructure bill late on Sunday—and after weeks of bipartisan negotiations, the legislation includes provisions that aim to allow researchers to study the actual marijuana that consumers are purchasing from state-legal dispensaries instead of having to use only government-grown cannabis.

The bill also encourages states that have enacted legalization laws to educate people about impaired driving.

The language on scientists’ access to retail cannabis products was attached to an earlier version of infrastructure legislation in a Senate committee, and it’s substantively the same as a provision included in a House-passed infrastructure bill.

The measure makes it so the transportation secretary would need to work with the attorney general and secretary of health and human services to develop a public report within two years of the bill’s enactment that includes recommendations on allowing scientists to access retail-level marijuana to study impaired driving.

The cannabis provision stipulates that the report must contain a recommendation on establishing a national clearinghouse to “collect and distribute samples and strains of marijuana for scientific research that includes marijuana and products containing marijuana lawfully available to patients or consumers in a state on a retail basis.”

It specifies that scientists from states that have not yet enacted legalization should also be able to access to dispensary products that are being sold in jurisdictions that have ended prohibition.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) sponsored the committee amendment that contains these reforms, and he argued that the changes are necessary in order to promote research into impaired driving and create a national standard for addressing such activity.

Advocates have been waiting to see whether the committee-approved language would make it into the bipartisan negotiated bill. And the fact that it did stay intact following extensive negotiations between Democrats and Republicans who worked to craft the deal is significant. The Senate is expected to take up the bill on the floor this week.

If it passes, the amended legislation would then need to go back to the House for consideration before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The bill says the cannabis research report must also broadly examine “federal statutory and regulatory barriers” to studies on marijuana-impaired driving.

The transportation legislation also contains a separate section that would require legal marijuana states—and only those states—to consider methods of educating people about and discouraging impaired driving from cannabis. Advocates take issue with that language simply because it targets legalized jurisdictions while ignoring the fact that marijuana-impaired driving takes place regardless of its legal status.

An earlier version of the transportation bill cleared the House last Congress with identical marijuana provisions but did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Since its initial introduction last year, some steps have been taken to resolve that issue. Most notably, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently notified several companies that it is moving toward approving their applications to become federally authorized marijuana manufacturers for research purposes.

That marks a significant development—and one of the first cannabis-related moves to come out of the Biden administration. There is currently a monopoly on federal cannabis cultivation, with the University of Mississippi having operated the only approved facility for the past half-century.

But that move from DEA would still not free up researchers to access marijuana products from state-legal retailers in the way the transportation legislation would encourage if enacted.

While advocates are supportive of measures to reduce impaired driving, some have raised issues with the implication that legalizing cannabis increases the risk of people driving while under the influence. Research isn’t settled on that subject.

A federally funded study recently promoted by the National Institute of Justice also found that the amount of THC in a person’s system after consuming marijuana is not an accurate predictor of impairment.

Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures

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Colorado Could Vote On Marijuana Tax Hike To Fund Education Programs After Campaign Submits Signatures



A Colorado campaign appears to have submitted enough signatures to place a ballot initiative before voters in November that would raise marijuana taxes to fund programs that are designed to reduce the education gap for low-income students.

The Colorado Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) measure would give low- and middle-income families a $1,500 stipend to have school-aged children participate in after-school programs, tutoring and summer learning activities.

The state excise tax on sales adult-use cannabis products would increased from 15 percent to 20 percent to fund the effort.

Supporters say this policy is especially needed as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has exacerbated income-related learning gaps for students. But some marijuana industry stakeholders—and even the state’s largest teachers union—have expressed concern about the proposal.

In any case, the LEAP campaign turned in about 200,000 signatures for the measure to the secretary of state’s office on Friday. It only needs 124,632 valid signatures to qualify.

Monica Colbert Burton, a LEAP campaign representative, told Colorado Public Radio that the sizable signature turn-in “really demonstrates the broad support around the state for this issue.”

“The learning loss that we’ve seen during the pandemic is so much higher than we’ve ever seen before particularly for our low-income families and our students that don’t have access to the same resources,” Colbert Burton said.

Beyond imposing the extra five percent tax on cannabis, the initiative also calls for a repurposing of state revenue that it generates from leases and rents for operations held on state land. Advocates estimate that the measure would translate into $150 million in additional funding annually.

But according to an analysis from Westword, adding the tax to the existing 15 percent special tax would’ve only created $80 million in added revenue based on 2020 sales figures.

Some stakeholders and cannabis advocates have come out strongly against the proposal.

“That this initiative is being pushed at a moment in Colorado when the cannabis industry is trying to create more equity and bring economic growth to marginalized communities harmed by the racist Drug War is especially tone deaf,” Hashim Coates, executive director of the trade group Black Brown and Red Badged, said in a press release. “But that is to be expected when the backers of this measure are affluent white men.”

“Let’s just be perfectly clear: this is a regressive tax—which always harms Black and Brown consumers the most. This is going to a voucher program—which always harms Black and Brown communities the most,” Coates said. “And it’s targeting the marijuana industry as a magical bottomless piggy bank—which will devastate the Black and Brown owned cannabis businesses the most. Can we just let the black community breathe for a moment after this pandemic before we start taxing them to death?”

The measure is being endorsed by a two former governors, about 20 sitting state lawmakers, several former legislative leaders and several other educational organizations.

But in June, the Colorado Education Association withdrew its support for the proposal over concerns about how it would be implemented.

The next step for the initiative is for the secretary of state’s office to verify that there are enough valid signature in the batch LEAP supporters turned in.

This development comes days after Colorado officials announced the launch of a new office to provide economic support for the state’s marijuana industry.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

The division, which was created as part of a bill signed into law in March, is being funded by cannabis tax revenue. It will focus on creating “new economic development opportunities, local job creation, and community growth for the diverse population across Colorado.”

Gov. Jared Polis (D) had initially asked lawmakers back in January to create a new a new cannabis advancement program as part of his budget proposal.

Beyond this program, the state has worked to achieve equity and repair the harms of prohibition in other ways.

For example, Polis signed a bill in May to double the marijuana possession limit for adults in the state—and he directed state law enforcement to identify people with prior convictions for the new limit who he may be able to pardon.

The governor signed an executive order last year that granted clemency to almost 3,000 people convicted of possessing one ounce or less of marijuana.

Funding for the new office is made possible by tax revenue from a booming cannabis market in the state. In the first three months of 2021 alone, the state saw more than half a billion dollars in marijuana sales.

The lack of access to federal financial support for marijuana businesses became a pronounced issue amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the Small Business Administration saying it’s unable to offer those companies its services, as well as those that provide ancillary services such as accounting and law firms.

Polis wrote a letter to a member of the Colorado congressional delegation last year seeking a policy change to give the industry the same resources that were made available to other legal markets.

California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals

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California Senator Seeks Federal Clarification On Medical Marijuana Use In Hospitals



A California senator is asking the head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide clarification on whether hospitals and other healthcare facilities in legal marijuana states can allow terminally ill patients to use medical cannabis without jeopardizing federal funding.

State Sen. Ben Hueso (D) on Thursday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure inquiring about the policy. Confusion about possible implications for permitting marijuana consumption in health facilities led pro-legalization Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to veto a bill meant to address the issue in 2019.

Hueso refiled a nearly identical version of the legislation for this session, and it’s already passed the full Senate and one Assembly committee. It’s now awaiting action on the Assembly floor before potentially being sent to Newsom’s desk.

“Ryan’s Law would require that hospitals and certain types of healthcare facilities in the State of California allow a terminally-ill patient to use medical cannabis for treatment and/or pain relief,” the senator wrote in the letter to the federal officials, with whom he is asking to meet to discuss the issue. “Currently, whether or not medical cannabis is permitted is left up to hospital policy, and this creates issues for patients and their families who seek alternative, more natural medication options in their final days.”

Hospitals that receive CMS accreditation are generally expected to comply with local, state and federal laws in order to qualify for certain reimbursements. And so because marijuana remains federally illegal, “many healthcare facilities have adopted policies prohibiting cannabis on their grounds out of a perceived risk of losing federal funding if they were to allow it.”

But Hueso said that his office received a letter from CMS several months ago stating that there are no specific federal regulations in place that specifically address this issue and that it isn’t aware of any cases where funding has been pulled because a hospital allows patients to use medical cannabis.

Marijuana Moment is already tracking more than 1,200 cannabis, psychedelics and drug policy bills in state legislatures and Congress this year. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.

Learn more about our marijuana bill tracker and become a supporter on Patreon to get access.

Additionally, because the Justice Department has been barred under annually renewed spending legislation from using its funds to interfere in the implementation of state-level medical marijuana programs, the senator said, “we believe the risk of federal intervention is little to none.”

“This confirmation from CMS been quite a breakthrough and we are optimistic it will alleviate the Governor’s concerns,” the letter continues. “However, I want to underscore that, prior to receiving this response, even the Governor of California was under the impression that CMS rules prohibited hospitals and healthcare facilities from allowing medical cannabis use.”

“Undoubtedly other states are struggling with this issue, too,” it says. “As more states decriminalize cannabis and even create recreational markets, we must not forget to also update the books for the most important consumers of all—patients.”

“While ideally the federal government will remove cannabis from its Schedule I designation, I appreciate that this is a lengthy and complex process. In the interim, it would be extremely helpful if you could provide clarification that assures Medicare/Medicaid providers that they will not lose reimbursements for allowing medical cannabis use on their premises. This clarification would go a long way to help hospital staff, security, above all, patients.”

Becerra, while previously serving as California attorney general and as a member of Congress, demonstrated a track record of supporting marijuana law reform.

Meanwhile, there are efforts in both chambers of Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) are currently soliciting feedback on draft legalization legislation they introduced this month.

Meanwhile, a separate House bill to federally legalize marijuana and promote social equity in the industry was reintroduced in May.

The legislation, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), was filed with a number of changes compared to the version that was approved by the chamber last year.

Read the letter from the California senator to Becerra below: 

Marijuana hospital letter t… by Marijuana Moment

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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