HELENA — The Montana Legislature’s major bill to implement marijuana legalization is now on its way to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk.
On Tuesday, the Montana House endorsed the Senate’s version of House Bill 701 62-38 in a preliminary vote. Less than an hour later, the bill passed again on a final vote, 67-32.
“We will walk out of this session having delivered forward to the people of Montana something that works,” said Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who sponsored HB 701.
It’s the end of a wild journey for the bill, which was officially introduced less than a month ago. Since that time, it has gone through the House and Senate, been heavily amended twice and been tabled in a House committee and then immediately revived.
On Monday, the House initially rejected the Senate’s amendments to HB 701, which would have sent the bill to a conference committee to attempt to find a version the two chambers could agree on. However, House members voted to reconsider that action later the same day.
Hopkins said he understood why House members had concerns about the bill and wanted to do more work on it, but he said HB 701 was the best option for implementing recreational marijuana, and it would have been a mistake to reject the amendments.
“The ramp that we have to the end of the legislative session, the work that the Senate had already done and the agreements that they had already come to meant that sending this bill back to a conference committee wouldn’t outright kill it, but would go about as far towards killing it as you could go without killing it,” Hopkins said. “It was a bad idea.”
HB 701 still drew opposition Tuesday from conservative Republicans in the House. They had concerns about how marijuana tax revenues would be used, and about whether it would encourage more black-market operations.
Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, said he doubted legal marijuana sales would raise enough revenue to support the programs laid out in HB 701. He also criticized a provision that would allow counties to ask voters for a local-option marijuana tax of up to 3%.
“In future sessions, when we hear why a local-option sales tax has proven to be an effective way to generate money for local communities, plant your flag on this day,” said Mercer. “Because this was the day that we opened the door to this new tax that will find its way into communities as that argument gets traction, and we will rue the day that we did this.”
Hopkins said an illicit market for marijuana already exists in Montana, so the state’s goal should be to pull as many of those customers as they can into the legal market.
“I think that out of every program that I’ve throughout the United States, this one is best situated to do exactly that,” he said.
Hopkins thanked all the legislators and staff members who put long hours into putting HB 701 together over the last few weeks.
HB 701 would extensively revise the framework for recreational marijuana set up in Initiative 190, the voter-approved legalization measure. It would allow existing medical marijuana providers to get licensed to sell to recreational customers, with the first legal sales starting Jan. 1, 2022. For the first 18 months, only current providers would be allowed to enter the market.
In counties where the majority of voters supported I-190, recreational marijuana businesses could operate unless a county or city voted to “opt out” of allowing them. In counties where most voters rejected I-190, recreational sales wouldn’t be allowed unless a local election was held to “opt in.”
In a statement to MTN on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Gianforte was “encouraged by the progress of HB 701, and will carefully review the bill when it reaches his desk.”