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Pair of measures would legalize marijuana in Montana

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Montana voters will decide this fall if recreational use of marijuana is legal for residents age 21 or older. PHOTO BY HAZEL CRAMER/COMMUNITY NEWS SERVICE

By Addie Slanger Community News Service, UM School of Journalism

Marijuana is back on the ballot — the third time in the last five election cycles — but this year Montanans will decide for the first time whether to follow other states like Colorado and Washington in legalizing use for all adults. 

The issue comes in the form of complementary ballot initiatives I-190 and CI-118. I-190 creates the rules for a recreational marijuana system in Montana, including a 20 percent tax. It also allows each county the option to prohibit dispensaries in their county.

CI-118 would amend the Montana Constitution to allow the state to set the minimum buying age to 21. If both pass, Montana would join 10 other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing recreational marijuana.

New Approach Montana, a group founded in January 2019 by Montana political veterans Ted Dick and Pepper Petersen, is running the pro-legalization effort. After seeing a decline of tax revenue from previous economic drivers like energy production and mining, the two men asked the Montana’s Office of Budget and Program Planning to estimate the benefits of legalized marijuana for the economy. The office estimated that retail taxes on recreational marijuana could generate upwards of $38.5 million a year by 2025.

“This is a substantial amount of funding,” Petersen said, adding the next steps were clear. “We wrote our own law — we have a uniquely Montana approach.”

But before that economic windfall could happen, New Approach needed to succeed where the last effort to legalize in 2016 fell short: qualifying for the ballot. The group pumped over $140,000 into signature-gathering efforts.

Dick and Petersen’s organization plans to pour much more money into the effort, ordering a whopping $2.3 million on advertisements, most of which are set to roll out in late October and early November.

The effort has been funded almost entirely by two donors: New Approach’s national Political Action Committee, which has donated over $140,000, and a DC-based organization called the North Fund, which has given more than $1.6 million. The entire campaign has generated over $2.8 million.

For much of the summer no official opposition had organized to oppose legalization, but that changed in mid-September.

The Montana Contractors Association, a group representing Montana building contractors and suppliers, released a video Sept. 8 outlining its opposition based on safety and workforce issues. 

“(Recreational marijuana) is not a recipe for a healthy workplace in the construction field,” MCA chief David Smith said. “And we don’t think something like recreational marijuana is going to help us recruit more employees.”

The next day, a Facebook page titled “Wrong For Montana” launched with an anti-legalization video warning voters about the potential for an increased drug presence in the state. The group pointed to problems in Colorado as cause for concern.

Wrong For Montana was founded by Steve Zabawa, a Billings car dealer who has opposed past marijuana legalization and medical cannabis efforts. Zabawa sees the legalization effort as a threat to Montana.

“Do we want more stoners in our family? If the answer is ‘yes,’ all we have to do is legalize recreational marijuana,” Zabawa said. “I’m just stepping out and saying it’s wrong for Montana. It’s not pristine, it’s not healthy, it’s not productive, and it’s not a good idea for Montana.”

The WFM campaign is launching its opposition with social media ads on Google and Facebook, using the financial help of national anti-legalization outfit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM). Zabawa confirmed his organization would be rolling out ads on Montana television networks in the weeks before the election. He would not comment on how much funding the group had to fight legalization, but the group will need to report its donors at the end of September.

Besides the Montana Contractors Association, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Montana Bankers Association and the Motor Carriers Association have all announced support for WFM and plan to contribute financially, Zabawa said. 

Petersen rejected Zabawa’s claims, arguing that by raising the buying age to 21 and mirroring the medical marijuana infrastructure, New Approach was ensuring safety.

“Steve has been a thorn in the side of marijuana supporters for years. For whatever reason, he’s got a personal jihad against them,” Petersen said. “I’m surprised that he actually believes the things that he says. It’s ridiculous. It’s just so objectively out of touch with reality.”

Still, some of those groups Zabawa opposed in the past are also worried about recreational marijuana. Smaller, Montana-based dispensaries worry their business will be swamped by larger, out-of-state companies. 

Michaela Schager, owner of Montana Medicinals, a family-owned medical marijuana dispensary in Missoula, said she was grateful for the initiative’s structure. If passed, business licences would be issued Jan. 1, 2022, with registered Montana dispensaries first in line. These dispensaries have one year to sell without out-of-state competition, but she acknowledged the competition would inevitably be a problem in the future.

“These out of state conglomerates are going to provide a lot of competition down the road. At some point that is going to be a formidable concern,” Schager said.

Petersen said there was no cause for concern.

“All the jobs are going to be here. All the tax revenue is going to be here,” he said. “Montana is not this big shining apple for marijuana conglomerates in terms of revenue generated. There may be some bleeding off initially, but that seems to level off, according to Colorado models.”

Petersen and New Approach based much of the bills’ infrastructure on Colorado, one of the only states that correctly estimated its projected tax revenue. He stressed that he thinks Montana is a big enough state for both commercial and medical suppliers.

“I don’t think there should be any angst between recreational and medical dispensaries,” he said. “I mean, it’s like, Burger King is right next to McDonald’s, and they all do pretty well. There’s lots of room in Montana for all of them.”

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