Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, listens to testimony during the 2021 legislative session.

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Montana lawmakers on Friday shelved a bill to delay implementing the recreational cannabis program passed by voters last fall, keeping the market's opening on track for January 2022.

Some legislators had pursued a one-year delay, fearing the timeline to begin issuing business licenses by October may mean cobbling the program together too hastily. The delay would also allow a pending lawsuit challenging the voter initiative that legalized pot to play out and to create additional time for the substantial effort to get that program off the ground, said Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, who sponsored the proposal in House Bill 457.

"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," Mercer told the House Business and Labor Committee.

Voters green-lighted marijuana legalization in November by 57% of the vote. Cannabis possession became legal in Montana in January, but businesses won't be able to apply for a license to sell recreational cannabis until October. The legalization initiative set out a date for pot to hit the shelves in January 2022.

Opponents to Mercer's proposal argued on Friday the move was a veiled first step toward repealing legalization down the road. J.D. "Pepper" Petersen, CEO and President of the Montana Cannabis Guild and one of the architects of the voter initiative to legalize.

"Every single proponent of delay was vocally opposed to this (initiative), financially opposed to this," Petersen told the committee on Friday. "This is a repeal attempt."

The proposal could have developed problems for the state budget, in which the governor has proposed allocating the tax revenue toward drug treatment. 

But the tax revenue at hand is the central issue in a lawsuit filed last year by the primary group that opposed legalization. Initiative 190 had directed funds toward conservation efforts, local governments, veterans programs and others, but the state constitution forbids voter initiatives from allocating funds, reserving that duty for the Legislature. That case, filed in Lewis and Clark District Court, has been stalled as the judge wanted to see how the measure plays out in the session.

Mercer questioned Friday whether people voted for marijuana legalization or for more funding for public lands, using cannabis simply as a vehicle to do so. Petersen has maintained the language in the initiative was merely a "suggestion."

Early in the session, Mercer prompted the House Appropriations Committee to reject a request from the Montana Department of Revenue to prop up its new marijuana program with $1.35 million in new funding. The department sought the additional funds for 20 full-time positions, a quarter-million dollar cash control room (because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, banks cannot handle accounts for providers) and operating expenses that would have floated the program through the early phases of the recreational program. 

With the question of delaying implementation now resolved, lawmakers have yet to introduce legislation to fully establish the program. A Gianforte spokesperson on Friday said a bill to implement legalization "safely and with appropriate regulation" is in the drafting process.

The House Business and Labor Committee on Friday also tabled House Bill 568, which would have limited marijuana business licenses to 1 per 10,000 county residents and 10 licenses per county

Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels summarizes the day's news from the Montana Legislative session.

Montana State News Bureau

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