BILLINGS — Six weeks after Billings residents voted to ban recreational marijuana sales within city limits, Yellowstone County Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to give county voters the same chance.
Chairman Don Jones, Denis Pitman, and John Ostlund, who voted against a similar resolution in August, all agreed to put the issue on the June 7 primary ballot. The move comes just 18 days before recreational marijuana sales become legal in Montana after House Bill 701 was signed into law earlier this year. Montana voters approved recreational sales on a state level in the November 2020 election.
A provision in Section 59, subsection 7 of HB 701 gives commissioners in each Montana county the right to put the issue on a local ballot. Billings city voters overwhelmingly rejected recreational sales on the November 2021 ballot in a similar procedural move.
Proponents of a re-vote at Tuesday's Yellowstone County public meeting, including Montana Rep. Bill Mercer (R-Billings), again pointed to increased crime statistics.
"It is a remarkable thing to see how many pre-sentence reports indicated that the defendant started in a life of a crime based upon the use of marijuana," said Mercer, who served as an attorney for 15 years.
The biggest emotional appeal came from Tanya Ludwig, whose son Eric died in 2020 at the hands of a driver under the influence.
"The girl that killed him had marijuana in her system, as well as a breakdown of cocaine," Ludwig said while fighting back tears.
Opponents of the re-vote addressed a statewide question about how tax money would be spent. The original I-190 initiative promised a sizable portion of funding for veterans as well as outdoor recreation projects. Instead, language in HB 701 states at least 90% will go to the state’s general fund, which is likely to sway some voters.
"People are talking about this bait and switch," said resident Jason Smith. "It's still up to legislation what to do with the money."
"I’d like to ask you to consider waiting one year before addressing this issue," resident Susan Stanley added. "See what comes in for tax dollars and consider what you’d do with the 3% local option."
Opponents also zeroed in on commissioner Ostlund, who said in August that people should not get to re-vote on an issue just because it didn't go their way.
"Mr. Ostlund said you don’t get to re-vote when you don’t get the outcome you like," resident Zach Schopp said. "What’s changed?”
Ostlund's reply was a direct response to November's city vote.
“After reviewing what happened in the city, with the overwhelming overturn of recreational sales, I believe the voters have been better educated and intend to vote for this today," he said.
Recreational sales will be legal starting Jan. 1 and will remain legal until at least the June 7 date, pending language in the ballot if the law is overturned. By adding this initiative to June's primary ballot, the ballot now is not allowed to be all-mail, according to the commissioners' in-house counsel.
The vote does not affect medical marijuana businesses.