— Reporting by Jonathon Ambarian – MTN News
HELENA – Two years after the Montana Legislature passed a bill to overhaul the state’s medical marijuana system, Democratic Sen. Tom Jacobson of Great Falls says more changes are still needed.
“This is all brand-new to Montana; we’ve not really done things to this extent in the past,” he said. “We knew there would be some changes that would have to come about.”
This year, Jacobson is sponsoring Senate Bill 265, another major reform to medical marijuana in Montana. The bill passed the Senate on a 36-14 vote last week and is set for a hearing in the House Taxation Committee Tuesday morning at 8 a.m.
SB 265 would make a number of changes, including increasing the tax on marijuana providers’ gross sales from 2 percent to 4 percent.
The tax revenue is used to pay costs for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to administer the medical marijuana program. Jacobson said, so far, there hasn’t been enough money to hire enough inspectors and take other needed steps.
“Rather than hamstringing the department in not being able to further implement these rules, we wanted to make sure they had adequate funds to implement the statutes,” he said.
The tax had initially been set at 4 percent to pay for the costs of setting up the medical marijuana system, but it reverted to 2 percent after the first year. The Montana Department of Revenue reported collecting about $345,900 in marijuana taxes over the last three months of 2018.
SB 265 would also explicitly prohibit providers from contracting with other businesses to process their marijuana into derivative products like edibles or concentrates.
But the biggest change — which was not originally in the bill and was added as an amendment in the Senate — would be “untethering” patients from providers. Currently, when patients register as medical marijuana card holders, they must either declare that they will grow their own marijuana or name a single provider they will purchase marijuana from.
“Being tied to one provider, though it creates some ease in monitoring, creates difficulties on the patients’ part for when they need to get their medical marijuana,” said Jacobson.
SB 265 would instead ask cardholders to declare whether or not they will use the system of providers. Those who do use the system will be limited to purchasing 5 ounces of usable marijuana per month, and no more than 1 ounce per day. DPHHS will be required to set up a system to track the amount sold to each patient, link it to their medical marijuana card, and alert a provider when the patient has reached their limit.
“You scan your card; it says, ‘Oh, you’ve purchased your allotment for the month or you’ve already gotten it from this place,’ so you can’t get multiple,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson said untethering will help patients who need medicine but are outside their community or for other reasons cannot get to their approved provider. He said he was always convinced it would eventually be necessary, but was initially willing to leave the issue until 2021. However, he said DPHHS leaders told him they believed they could implement untethering sooner than that.
Kate Cholewa, government relations consultant for the Montana Cannabis Information Association, a lobbying organization for the marijuana industry, said it was clear medical marijuana patients wanted the state to consider untethering.
“All the work this organization has done, we’ve tried to put the patients first, and this is what the patients have come in and said they wanted,” she said.
Jon Ebelt, public information officer for Montana DPHHS, said the agency is already working with the company that runs the state’s “seed-to-sale” marijuana tracking system to determine what steps they will need to take to implement untethering if SB 265 passes.
The House Taxation Committee is not expected to take any immediate action on SB 265 after Tuesday’s hearing. Committee chair Rep. Alan Redfield, a Republican from Livingston, told MTN the committee will have several proposed amendments to the bill to consider.