Feb 26, 2021

House Business & Labor Committee Tables Bill to Delay Rec Implementation


fter hearing two bills to curtail the implementation of I-190, Montana's adult-use cannabis program, this week, the House Business and Labor Committee voted on Friday afternoon to table one and vote down the other.

HB 457, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer (R-Billings), was tabled. It would delay implementation of the program by one year. During its hearing on Friday, Mercer argued that the campaign for I-190 intentionally misled voters by suggesting that revenue generated by legal cannabis would go towards public lands preservation and veterans services, among other projects. He also argued that the program would require nearly 100 new full time government employees.

HB 568, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway (R-Great Falls), was voted down on Friday by the same committee. It would have limited adult-use shops to one per every 10,000 residents, and required all shops to be at least 1,000 feet from schools, churches and parks (current law requires medical dispensaries to be at least 500 feet away from said establishments).

On Friday, opponents of Mercer’s bill pointed out that the referenced revenue allocations were simply suggestions; only the Legislature can appropriate funds. Furthermore, opponents argued that Mercer’s ulterior goal is to repeal the bill via an ongoing lawsuit.

“This is not a delay attempt. This is a repeal attempt,” said Pepper Petersen, President and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, and a primary author of I-190, during the hearing. 

Mercer’s bill drew testimony from a handful of supporters, including Steve Zabawa, a Billings car dealer who is the driving force behind a lawsuit to overturn I-190. (Zabawa’s prohibitionist stance has also made him the subject of a 6,000-person strong Facebook group dedicated to boycotting his business). 

During his testimony, Zabawa praised South Dakota governor Kristi Noem (R) and her ongoing campaign to subvert the will of voters in her state to legalize adult-use marijuana. 

Scott Reichner, a former Montana State Representative and lobbyist in Zabawa’s employ, also spoke in favor of Mercer’s bill.

“There is no urgency to do this now. We have medical marijuana in place,” he said.

Opponents of Mercer’s bill noted that final decisions on allocations are always left up to the Legislature, and underscored the anti-democratic implications of not fulfilling the will of the people.

Petersen also addressed Mercer’s argument that implementing the program will require a big expansion of government personnel. “If you’re really concerned about the cost, extend the moratorium on new players,” he said, and thus keep the program in the hands of existing medical dispensaries.

Former Republican State Representative Dave Lewis, who served as budget director for four Montana governors and is now an advisor to the Montana Cannabis Guild, reminded the committee that there are “No appropriations in 190.”

The committee also heard from members of the public that aren’t affiliated with industry groups, Sam Orr, a Missoula resident, pointed out that I-190 garnered more support than Governor Gianforte during the 2020 election [Gianforte won 54% of the vote; I-190 won 57%] and that it is the state's responsibility to enact the will of the people.

After the Friday hearing, Ted Dick, former Executive Director of the Montana Democratic Party and the Executive Director of the Cannabis Guild, told Montana Cannabis Insider that the time to debate the validity of the program has passed. “There’s only one poll that counts, and that's at the ballot box,” he said. “We passed recreational marijuana twice [via two separate bills]. It was not a fluke. Bill Mercer’s bill, as well as the other reckless cannabis bills, go against the spirit of I-190.”

Stay tuned for updates on HB 457.