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3 major marijuana bills to go before full MT House after drama in committees

Marijuana Bill Discussions
Marijuana Bill Discussions
Posted at 9:21 AM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 11:38:12-04

HELENA — Three major bills to overhaul the state’s marijuana laws are all headed to the full Montana House for consideration – but not before some dramatic moments at the Legislature Thursday.

Committees advanced House Bill 670, House Bill 701 and House Bill 707 on Thursday, but the latter two – including the bill that has been considered most likely to advance – failed on initial votes and had to be revived.

The Legislature is approaching another key deadline next week: All of these bills have to pass through the House by next April 8 in order to move forward. Lawmakers will be off on Friday and Monday for a short Easter break, so they only have three legislative days left to work on the bills. That rush meant they had to take quick action.

HB 670, 701 and 707 all layout a different vision for how the future recreational marijuana system in Montana should be implemented – and all would make significant changes from the system laid out in the voter-approved Initiative 190:

  • HB 701, sponsored by Republican Rep. Mike Hopkins of Missoula and co-sponsored by House and Senate leaders, has been the most talked-about bill. It would set up separate licenses for medical and recreational dispensaries, and it would send the money to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s “HEART Fund” account for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
  • HB 670, from Republican Reps. Derek Skees and Matt Regier of Kalispell, would create a single license for medical and recreational marijuana sales, and it would put tax revenues on recreational sales into a trust fund to address negative impacts of marijuana use.
  • HB 707, sponsored by Republican Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula, would set up a three-tiered system – with marijuana growers selling to wholesalers, who would sell to dispensaries – and it would put tax revenue in the general fund.

Each bill also includes a laundry list of other rule changes.

The House Business and Labor Committee held hearings on all three bills Tuesday and Wednesday, and the House Taxation Committee heard testimony on them Thursday. However, leadership determined the bills had to move forward by Thursday, so each was assigned to one of the two committees for a vote – 670 and 707 to Business and Labor and 701 to Taxation. Committee chairs said they had to take action now, and plan to discuss potential amendments later in the process.

“They have to be done today, so we can pass them or kill them,” said Republican Rep. Mark Noland of Bigfork, chair of the Business and Labor Committee.

House Speaker Rep. Wylie Galt of Martinsdale said leaders were forced to rush the bills in order to get them on the House floor on Tuesday, so they can be amended there and ready for a final vote on Thursday.

Democrats on the committees generally opposed all three bills, saying they had issues with the changes they made from I-190 and with the procedure for moving the bills so quickly. Several Republican lawmakers said they wanted to see all three bills move onto the House floor, and possibly the Senate, so there’s more time to consider what they see as good points in each. One possibility discussed has been for some aspects of HB 670 and HB 707 to be amended into HB 701.

Eventually, Business and Labor approved HB 670 11-9, with all eight Democrats and one Republican voting against it. However, they voted down HB 707 5-15, with seven Republicans joining the Democrats.

After that vote, Taxation rejected HB 701 8-10. Four Republicans voted against it, as did all six Democrats.

One of the Republicans who voted no on HB 701, Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway of Great Falls, said she was supportive of the wholesale provisions in HB 707 and wanted to see all three bills move forward. She also said she was frustrated by the short time the Taxation Committee had to consider 701.

Immediately after the votes, lawmakers including House Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Casey Knudsen of Malta and Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton held lengthy discussions in the hallway between the two committee rooms. Eventually, the committees returned and reconsidered their actions on 701 and 707, voting to send both to the floor.

“This bill, I know it’s not perfect,” said Republican Rep. Josh Kassmier of Fort Benton about HB 701. “But there are a lot of things in there that are good. We need to keep moving on it, keep working on it. We’ve got a lot of time.”

Republican Reps. Caleb Hinkle, Scot Kerns and Jeremy Trebas, along with Sheldon-Galloway, reversed their votes on 701. Republican Reps. Fred Anderson, Ed Buttrey, Neil Duram, Ross Fitzgerald, Steve Gist, Denley Loge and Kerri Seekins-Crowe changed their votes on 707.

If the Legislature can’t agree on any marijuana reform bill by the end of the session, that would leave the structure set up by I-190 in place, with recreational sales set to go forward by next year.