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Recreational marijuana launch doesn't apply to all Montana counties

Red and Green Counties
Posted at 9:00 AM, Dec 30, 2021

HELENA — The countdown is on to Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, when legal recreational marijuana sales will begin in Montana.

It’s likely to bring in a lot of new business for many existing marijuana dispensaries — but for those operating in a number of Montana’s more rural counties, it’s not going to be open for them, at least not immediately.

“I think it’s going to come as a surprise to a lot of people here in Beaverhead County,” said John Buhrman, a partner and manager at The Higher Standard, a dispensary in Dillon. “In talking to different people in Dillon and around the county, they believe Saturday morning, they’re going to be able to buy adult-use marijuana. I’m sure we’re going to have a bunch of them in the shop Saturday morning that we’ll have to turn away.”

Beaverhead County is one of Montana’s so-called “red counties,” where medical marijuana providers aren’t authorized to begin selling to recreational customers. In “green counties,” providers that were operating before voters passed the legalization measure Initiative 190 can start those sales on Jan. 1.

Based on the state’s projections for recreational sales, Buhrman estimates that his business could lose out on as much as $1.2 million in revenue per year if they can’t join the adult-use market.

“Quite a kick in the pants,” he said.

As part of the negotiations over recreational marijuana during the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers inserted a provision into House Bill 701 that linked adult-use sales to whether county voters supported I-190.

In counties where most voters backed legalization, recreational sales would be automatically allowed. Counties, where voters rejected the measure, would have to hold an additional public vote to “opt-in” to recreational marijuana.

I-190 Map

Half of Montana’s 56 counties voted for I-190, and the other half voted against it – though the 28 “green” counties included well over 80% of the state’s population. Beaverhead County had the closest results in the state, with “No” winning 2,819 to 2,792 — a difference of just 27 votes.

Buhrman says he’s disappointed in the county-based restrictions, arguing they’re just likely to drive customers to neighboring counties or to the black market. He said, since marijuana possession won’t be illegal, people may well be driving back into the red counties with marijuana they bought elsewhere.

Counties can flip from “red” to “green” or vice versa. A resident in a red county can circulate a petition, and if they get enough signatures, another vote will be held on whether to allow adult-use sales. In a green county, leaders can call a vote on whether to prohibit marijuana businesses.

Dawson County, which includes Glendive, was the first red county to switch. Last week, they held a special election, where voters approved allowing recreational sales. County Commissioner Joe Sharbono told MTN News they expect that change to take effect on Jan. 1.

In Yellowstone County, a green county,county commissioners decided to place a vote on the June primary ballot, giving residents the option to prohibit recreational sales.

Buhrman is hoping to circulate a petition for an election in Beaverhead County next year, most likely to be held in November 2022. He said, while he opposed the “red/green” split, he credited the Legislature for giving local people a path to make changes.

“We’ll work through it that way, and next year at this time, hopefully, we’ll have it here in Beaverhead County and it’ll just fade into the past,” he said.