Local Support for Keeping Recreational Pot Sales Outweighs Opposition

A day after the Flathead County commissioners held a hearing to gauge public support for opting out of recreational marijuana sales they released a statement that no action would be taken

By Micah Drew
The leaves of a young marijuana plant at Tamarack Dispensary, a purveyor of medical cannabis in Kalispell on May 14, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

By 9:01 a.m. Wednesday morning, the commissioners’ chambers inside the historic Flathead County Courthouse could hardly contain a standing-room-only crowd, with latecomers relegated to the hallway as they waited for an opportunity to rotate into the packed hearing room, every one of them on hand to talk about pot.

Specifically, they were there to discuss a little-known section of Montana Code Annotated (MCA) 16-12-301, the law framing how local governments can regulate recreational marijuana businesses following the passage in 2020 of ballot initiative I-190, which legalized adult-use marijuana in the state. However, the third-to-last paragraph of the MCA section states that “a county in which the majority of voters voted to approve … 190 … may vote to prohibit the previously approved or allowed operations within the jurisdiction.”

Flathead County approved of I-190 by a seven-point margin and, in the eight months since recreational marijuana has been legal here, has a burgeoning industry to show for it. Now, the county is the latest battleground for the continued discussion of legal cannabis as the commissioners entertained a discussion of whether the option to “opt out” of allowing recreational marijuana businesses to operate in the county should again be put to the voters.  However they seemed to be swayed by the ratio of public sentiment as a Thursday afternoon press release stated the commission did not intend to take any further action.

Wednesday’s public comment endured for nearly two hours as dozens of individuals — dispensary owners, workers and patrons — spoke in favor of recreational cannabis businesses, while several local legislators joined the minority of those in opposition.

Flathead County has nearly 60 licensed adult-use dispensaries, with a majority concentrated in Evergreen due to local zoning regulations. According to the Montana Department of Revenue, July sales of marijuana in Flathead County totaled just over $3 million — with three quarters of the money exchanged coming from the recreational side, amounting to the fourth-highest sales volume in the state. 

Kyle Hanson and Zach Block, owners of 406 Farmacy and Montana Canna, respectively, both said they saw sales increase more than six times in the first month of 2022 compared to their previous medical-only operations.

“How many people were first-time cannabis users? Some of them, but not many,” Block said. “Meaning all of those came from the black market. If we do away with recreational dispensaries in this county, they are all going back to the black market.”

Jars of flower of various marijuana strains for sale at Tamarack Cannabis shop on Dec. 29, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Montana Rep. John Fuller, R-Whitefish, who is currently running for a state senate seat, said his biggest issues when crafting the measure legalizing recreational cannabis during the 2021 session was the “dichotomy of Montana annulling federal law.”

“The reality is that marijuana is still federally outlawed,” Fuller said. “Putting in the opt in, opt out clauses was a compromise to try to enable local communities to determine what their community is. I think it’s a win-win if you pass a resolution to put on the ballot, ‘marijuana within the county, opt in or opt out.’”

“Do not be swayed by the siren call that you will be encouraging the black market,” Fuller added. “The black market is already here.”

Scott Richardson, an advocate with the group Safe Montana that has led the charge for prohibition statewide, said he felt voters had been misled by the language in the ballot initiative. I-190 laid out guidelines for how marijuana tax revenue could be spent, but the Montana Legislature was not bound by the language, he said. Richardson also felt that Flathead County’s seven-point margin of passage was close enough to retry the issue at the ballot box.

“We believe that if it’s a straight up or down vote, Flathead County opts out,” Richardson said.

Pepper Petersen, president of the Montana Cannabis Guild and primary author of I-190, pushed back on the argument that voters were duped, adding that the legislators in the room had the opportunity to direct money however they saw fit.

“We’re beyond that now. We had a vote. We voted on two initiatives, and one changed the state constitution,” Petersen said. “Do you know how difficult it is to do that? It wasn’t an accident, people weren’t fooled. The initiatives that we passed were the most successful in the history of the state of Montana.”

Indeed, the two cannabis initiatives drew more votes in favor than any individual statewide candidate with the exceptions of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican, and former President Donald Trump.

Local dispensary workers and cannabis users spoke about the difficulty of navigating the medical marijuana system and the relative ease of buying pot through the recreational industry, urging the commissioners to consider the number of users who would be affected by changes to local regulations.

 “Every week, my coworkers and I help dozens of people complete their medical applications through the Montana TAP website, and I just have to say it is a completely broken website that crashes regularly and is full of misleading information. Then the follow-through from the state which can take weeks to get back very basic correspondence,” said Tamarack Cannabis budtender Jacob Carr. “There are a lot of medical patients who have let their card lapse in the year of recreational so far simply to not have to deal with the website — they’re happy to pay the rec tax. Those are the people that would be directly affected by this.”

A closeup of buds from a strain of marijuana called Jungle Cookie from Tamarack Dispensary, a grower and purveyor of medical cannabis in Kalispell on May 14, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead is the latest county to address bids to repeal the law allowing recreational marijuana sales after Safe Montana led similar opt-out campaigns in Yellowstone and Granite counties earlier this year.

In June, primary voters in Yellowstone County voted 58-42 against opting out of legal marijuana cultivation and sales, a nearly eight-point increase for pro-marijuana sentiment compared to the original 2020 ballot initiative.

Conversely, Granite County voters successfully flipped the county from green to red during the primary election, but the county’s lone dispensary manager Kendrick Richmond has gathered enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot once again in November, according to the Montana Free Press.

Kalispell City Councilor Sid Daoud, who supported the initiative to legalize recreational cannabis, countered some of Wednesday’s anti-cannabis rhetoric by emphasizing that “opting out” only targets the recreational pot economy, not its consumers.

“I’ve heard a lot of anti-cannabis comments up here today, but this effort would not remove the ability for citizens to consume cannabis,” Daoud said. “I want to make sure that we understand what we’re talking about. We’re talking about removing an industry, instead of removing the ability to consume.”

In a press release sent out Thursday afternoon, the county commissioners stated they will not move forward with any actions to opt out of legal cannabis sales. Commissioner Brad Abell stated while he opposed legal marijuana in Montana, the public hearing allowed “the voices, both for and against, to present their views and opinions in a public forum. I believe this was good government.”

“After listening to both sides of this issue I have several thoughts. I don’t believe that the repeal of I190 would stop anybody from using cannabis it would just prevent them from using a tested and regulated product. Any process to repeal I190 needs to start with a citizen initiative and a petition drive. If a majority of Flathead County voters truly want it repealed, which should be a straightforward process without the cost of litigation that would follow if it was placed on the ballot by the commissioners,” Abell wrote.

“As a strong supporter of business and property rights, I believe the owners of the dispensaries who have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into what is a legal enterprise with the expectation of being able to plan for the future should not lose those investments. With this in mind I will publicly state I have no intention of doing anything that would place this on the ballot.”

Adding to the marijuana ballot discussions, last week the Flathead County Commission voted 2-1 on two measures that would put the option for a 3% local excise tax on recreational and medical marijuana on the November ballot. Revenue from the tax would be split between the county (50%) and local municipalities (45%) with the rest going to cover administrative costs. County staff estimate the tax could bring in roughly $460,000 for Flathead County per year.

This story has been updated to reflect Thursday’s press release from the county commission