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Recreational marijuana supporters rally at Yellowstone County courthouse

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Posted at 5:47 PM, Apr 30, 2022

BILLINGS — Marijuana is legal in Yellowstone County but in June, voters will decide whether to continue to allow recreational sales. Around 30 pot supporters gathered on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn Saturday hoped to send a message.

“Over the last two months, the county and city have collected over a quarter-million dollars in cannabis tax,” said Zach Schopp, president of Better for Montana.

Better for Montana is a ballot issue committee determined to end marijuana prohibition. The organization hosted speakers in an effort to keep recreational marijuana legal in the county.

Among those speakers was Montana state Rep. Jessica Karjala, a Billings Democrat. She’s represented District 48 since 2015.

“The passage of I-190 to legalize adult recreational marijuana was overwhelmingly the big winner on the 2020 ballot,” Karjala said.

Initiative 190 legalized the possession and use of marijuana for anyone 21 years and older in the state. It was approved in November 2020 with nearly 60 percent support statewide. In Yellowstone County, the majority barely favored it, with 50.7 percent for and 49.3 against.

During the 2021 legislative session, majority Republicans passed a bill giving local governments the right to hold a second election to determine whether to allow recreational marijuana sales as outlined in I-190. Yellowstone County commissioners voted to do just that, after voters in the city of Billings rejected recreational marijuana sales in November 2021.

The countywide election will be held June 7.

“The fact that we have this event today is quite unfortunate and frustrating, yet I know we will overcome yet again,” said Billings resident, Nathan Schmitz.

Many speakers focused on how the industry has created jobs for Yellowstone County residents as well as the tax revenue that recreational marijuana brings.

An estimated 600 county residents work in the industry, according to the Schopp

“Putting this up for a revote not only threatens their well-being and these small businesses, but it also threatens the small community in that there’s going to be lost tax revenue,” Schopp said.

However, those opposed aren’t buying it.

Steve Zabawa is the founder of SafeMontana, a coalition against recreational marijuana in Montana.

“Do we want drug pushers on our corners? They’re just in it for the money. There’s nothing good about recreational marijuana from a health standpoint,” Zabawa said.

He’s concerned with how the use of marijuana has increased since it’s been legalized, as well as just how much money the industry actually does bring in.

“In March, they brought in $54,000 in Yellowstone County so how they stretch it from $54,000 to $10 million bucks on their sign, that’s their pitch, that’s the only thing they can say,” Zabawa said.

Both sides agree on one thing, however: Go out and vote.

“If the people want it, god bless them, let them have it, but I don’t believe the majority of Montanans want that, and I’m going to show Greg Gianforte that that’s the case,” Zabawa said.

And both sides are concerned with safety when it comes to recreational marijuana, even if it’s from different standpoints.

“We want to make sure that the product going out there is safe, people are going to consume it either way,” said Schopp.