Marijuana Redux

We have a messy history of legislating cannabis

By Kellyn Brown

If you’ve been outside at all, you’ve probably seen them: signature gatherers sitting by folding tables at busy intersections across the valley. They got a late start because of COVID-19, but now appear to be making a concerted effort in their push to gather enough support to place a measure legalizing recreational marijuana on November’s ballot.

They are actually proposing that two cannabis-related questions be posed in the upcoming election. One would legalize and tax marijuana. The other would prohibit anyone from buying it until they are at least 21 years old.

The deadline to gather the signatures is this week, June 19. Then we’ll find out whether New Approach Montana, which is spearheading the effort, was able to make up for lost time. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. With signature gatherers everywhere in our conservative county, imagine how many of them are in the state’s university towns of Missoula and Bozeman.

The group may have received a small boost after the Montana Democratic Party added legalizing marijuana to its party platform during a remote convention earlier this month. But according to Montana Public Radio, while most planks received unanimous support, this one didn’t.

“Members ultimately approved language supporting recreational cannabis use for people 21 and over,” MTPR reported, “although 27 percent of platform convention attendees voted against the plank containing that idea.”

Some of those opposing the move said they support decriminalization but were concerned about health impacts on younger people.

In a poll conducted by the University of Montana last year, 51% percent of registered voters said they supported legalization with 37% opposed. Whether that translates into residents putting pen to paper en masse supporting rule changes is another matter. After all, we have a messy history of legislating cannabis.

In 2004, after voters approved the use of medical marijuana, the industry exploded. With little oversight, by 2011 the number of cardholders ballooned to about 30,000 patients and 4,500 providers. Federal agents cracked down on dispensaries across the state and the Legislature passed new restrictions.

As recently as 2014, a Montana State University Billings survey found that 60% of residents were opposed to the idea of legalizing recreational use of marijuana. But then the pendulum began swinging the other direction. In 2016, voters approved initiative 182, which reversed many of the provisions the Montana Legislature had approved, and the number cardholders again proliferated. Last year the number eclipsed its previous high and continues to grow.

During our decade-long boom-to-bust-to-boom medical marijuana industry, more than 10 states have legalized marijuana for adult use. But it’s not without detractors who say benefits from taxing it are lost to increased costs in social services.

For its part, New Approach Montana claims that marijuana sales taxes would generate $129 million for the state in the first five years and that “revenue will be used to fund veterans services, conservation programs, substance abuse treatment, and long-term health care.”

The group must submit about 25,000 valid signatures to get the statutory measure for legalization on the ballot and 51,000 for the age requirement. It’s a heavy lift in such a short amount of time. And whether either qualifies could indicate which way Montanans are trending on an issue that refuses to go away.

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