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Montana House committee votes down bill to delay recreational marijuana sales



HELENA — A Montana legislative committee has voted down a bill that would have delayed the implementation of the state’s recreational marijuana system.

The House Business and Labor Committee held a hearing Friday morning on House Bill 457, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, a Republican from Billings. Several hours later, committee members voted 11-9 to table the proposal – one of more than two dozen bills they took action on.

Under voter-approved Initiative 190, the state will begin taking license applications from prospective recreational marijuana sellers in October. Legal sales can start Jan. 1, 2022.

HB 457 would have pushed both of those deadlines back by one year. Mercer argued the implementation should be delayed until a district court rules on a lawsuit that challenged I-190 on a claim that it illegally appropriates state money. He said it would be a mistake to set up a structure for legal sales if the initiative could still be thrown out.

Mercer also noted that state agencies have said it could take close to 100 new full-time positions to administer the new recreational marijuana program, and he questioned whether they could successfully launch such a large program in such a short time.

“If it is not deemed to be unconstitutional, if this is going to go live, let’s not have a situation where it is chaotic and not ready for prime time because we put the cart well ahead of the horse,” he said.

HB 457 also drew support from the Montana Bankers Association, sheriffs, county attorneys and anti-marijuana advocates.

Opponents of HB 457 said all of those who supported the bill had been against legalizing marijuana in the first place, and they claimed the bill was essentially a back-door attempt to repeal what the voters approved.

Dave Lewis was a senior advisor to New Approach Montana, the committee that led the campaign for I-190. He is now an analyst for the Montana Cannabis Guild, a lobbying organization led by the same people. During the hearing Friday, he said the fact that the state had successfully regulated millions of dollars in medical marijuana sales showed they could handle the expansion into recreational sales.

“We have a mature industry in the medical marijuana industry; we can add on to that with regulations to expand to cover recreational,” said Lewis.

Also on Friday, the committee voted 18-2 to table House Bill 568, sponsored by Republican Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls. That bill would have limited the number of recreational marijuana dispensaries in each county to one for every 10,000 residents.

The marijuana bills were among more than two dozen the Business and Labor Committee took action on Friday, in one of the last committee meetings before the transmittal deadline. Any bill that doesn’t appropriate money or affect state revenues has to pass through its first chamber by next Wednesday or it dies.

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