Adult Use Marijuana Is Now Legal in Montana. So Why Can't Everyone Enjoy It?

Montanans voted to legalize in 2020, then things got complicated.

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As a sign of the changing times, voters in conservative Montana approved recreational marijuana in November 2020. Now the state's dispensaries are preparing for recreational cannabis sales expected to create a $325 million adult-use cannabis market in just three years.

Sales started on January 1, 2022. But they won't happen in every county—at least not initially. Montana lawmakers have decided that counties where voters did not support legalization, must hold a separate referendum to make sales legal in their county.

Still, state leaders expect big sales in so-called "green counties" where voters supported the referendum, especially in areas where tourism is a large part of the economy. In 2020, more than 11 million tourists visited Montana, a state with just over one million residents.

The start of legal sales adds Montana residents to the growing list of millions of Americans with access to recreational cannabis. The MJBizDaily Factbook projects $90 million in recreational marijuana sales in 2022 and $325 million by 2025.

Related: Which States Will Legalize Recreational Weed Next?

 

The interesting twist in legalization

For consumers in Montana, the new law allows all state residents at least 21 years old to possess and use up to one ounce of cannabis without criminal penalties. The state prohibits cannabis use in public places and on federal land and waters. As with every state, driving under the influence also is illegal.

But state leaders have debated the details of legalization since 57 percent of Montana voters approved it. Earlier in 2021, lawmakers passed provisions that changed the details of the original law.

For example, the number of plants a person can grow at home is now two rather than four. Also, for the first 18 months of the program, only medical marijuana dispensaries may sell adult-use cannabis (Montana voters legalized medical marijuana in 2004).

Most significantly, lawmakers prohibited sales in counties where a majority of voters did not approve the statewide referendum – Initiative 190 - that made cannabis legal, according to the Montana Department of Revenue. For sales to happen in those counties, voters must approve a new referendum in a local election.

The reverse is also true. The department website notes: "In a county where the majority of voters supported Initiative 190, certain marijuana businesses could be prohibited if that county holds a local election and a majority of the voters choose to prohibit that type of business from operating."

Marijuana advocates swiftly moved to condemn these rules. "Here we have lawmakers tweaking the law in ways that are inconsistent with what the majority of voters decided in favor of," NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano said in reaction to the changes in Montana. "Whether or not one supports or opposes cannabis legalization, one should be deeply concerned by this trend."

Related: All Those Fears About Marijuana Legalization Never Materialized

 

Dispensaries are gearing up for big crowds

In Missoula, where 70 percent of voters approved legalization, Greenhouse Farmacy dispensary co-owner Brian Monahan told Montana Public Radio that he expects his sales to triple in 2022. The dispensary is currently working around the clock to prepare for the start of Montana recreational cannabis sales, including ramping up production, improving the parking lot, and putting in new sales kiosks.

"I feel like I'm in a hamster wheel. It's constant," Monahan said. "It's almost just like a marathon runner at the end of a marathon. It's like, just a couple more miles, and it's there."

Even in green counties, the amount consumers pay in sales tax will vary. The state mandates a 20 percent sales tax on marijuana sales. However, voters in the counties of Missoula, Park, and Yellowstone also approved an additional 3 percent local tax. 

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