HELENA — With just three weeks left before recreational marijuana sales in Montana begin, state lawmakers say they want to take some more time to go through the rules that will govern those sales.
On Thursday, the Economic Affairs Interim Committee voted to informally object to the current rule proposals from the Montana Department of Revenue. That will delay the rulemaking process for a few days while lawmakers talk with the department and take a closer look at the proposals.
“Since this is such an important issue for the state of Montana, it’s our obligation to make sure it’s 100% accurate, 100% within the intent of the Legislature – that our legislative intent is met for the people of Montana,” said Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton. “That is our job, and our job alone.”
Ellsworth and Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, will take the lead in working with Revenue. Both served on the select committee that helped shape House Bill 701, the main marijuana bill during the last legislative session.
Ellsworth told MTN it’s not a fight, and that the department has done a lot of good work on the rules in a very tight timeline. However, he still has concerns about some of the provisions that he believes stray too far from what lawmakers intended with HB 701. For example, he questioned rules that would allow outdoor marijuana growers – otherwise prohibited but grandfathered in if they were already operating – to increase their cultivation space. He also had concerns about a changed rule that would let marijuana dispensaries label their products with the word “cannabis” instead of “marijuana.”
Morigeau said one of his main concerns is about the department’s interpretation that marijuana licenses offered to the state’s eight tribes can only be for the smallest allowable cultivation size. He also had questions after business owners said Thursday that they were facing high fees because they had to renew all of their licenses at one time.
“I think we’re very close, but I think we just need some refinement to get this right out of the gate,” said Morigeau. “This is a big deal for Montana; we understand that, we appreciate that and we want to get it right.”
The Department of Revenue already presented some proposed amendments to the rules during Thursday’s meeting, addressing some of the provisions that had been unpopular with marijuana businesses. They loosened a provision that would have prohibited marijuana dispensaries from selling CBD oil and other products derived from hemp. They also took out a section that said criminal convictions or guilty pleas could be grounds for suspending someone’s permit to work for a marijuana business. Advocates said the language could have kept people out of the industry even if they had only a minor offense.
“We enjoyed seeing the reversal of those extremely restrictive regulations that were obviously straying far from the intent of the legislation,” said Pepper Petersen, president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild.
Ellsworth and Morigeau will be talking to the department over the weekend. The committee will meet again on Monday, Dec. 13, where they could decide to lift the informal objection.
The goal is to have regulations finalized by Christmas, so they can be in place for the start of adult-use marijuana sales on Jan. 1.
However, many people at Thursday’s meeting acknowledged that there will be more issues to deal with even after recreational sales begin.
“If history is any guide, I say we’ve got sales starting in three weeks, and to expect the unexpected,” said Kate Cholewa, of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association.
You can find more information on the Department of Revenue’s proposed rule changes here.