Voters in Montana said yes to legalization last year, decriminalizing possession under 30 grams in the state on Jan. 1st, 2021. The launch of commercial sales hasn’t taken place yet, but companies are bracing themselves for the months ahead.
On Jan. 1st, 2022, the sale of marijuana products and smoking accessories will operate in total throughout the state. However, Montana Public Radio reports that the unfamiliarity surrounding a regulated cannabis market has already led to confusion between lawmakers and cannabis operators. Underscoring the skepticism is the fact that laws change county to county — some retailers are only allowed to operate in state counties that voted to approve the sale of cannabis.
Regulators have found themselves receiving pushback from retailers, which is only natural. Statewide legalization prevents people from getting arrested for possession, but it’s up to local governments to regulate legal sales. Only half of the counties in Montana voted for the sales of cannabis.
In that sense, the areas permitted to launch dispensaries will be guinea pigs for other counties. Kristen Barbour, head of Montana’s Department of Revenue’s Cannabis Control Division, explained that plenty of local governments are mainly keen on having a grip on the legal market to provide citizens the regulation they voted on. Barbour used Billings, Missoula as an example of this. Billings is currently trying to decipher how to manage their businesses and the number of brick-and-mortar businesses they’re willing to allow. “So we will always take into play that local governments trump what the state would allow,” Barbour said.
Local sales tax is another factor that will determine other counties permitting recreational cannabis shops. Voters in three counties — Missoula, Park, and Yellowstone — approved a 3% tax on cannabis sales, in addition to the 20% statewide tax. According to Montana Cannabis Guild’s Pepper Peterson, this means that there’s a high chance that the counties that initially voted against cannabis sales will eventually come around.
For dispensaries and cannabis companies, they’re down to the final quarter before the launch of their operations in Montana. Medical marijuana dispensaries are converting into brick-and-mortar shops for the general public to access products. Businesses expect revenue to skyrocket, but there’s still a need to turn their operations into a fully-functioning storefront. Brian Monahan, Missoula’s Greenhouse Farmacy co-owner, explained that companies are scrambling under these final moments to prepare their products to hit the shelves properly. That means removing the products from plastic storage containers, pre-weighing and packaging the dried bulk flower. Monahan also has to deal with the renovation logistics, creating new floor plans, installing sales kiosks, and creating accessible parking for his incoming surge of customers. Though these last few weeks before legalization is overwhelming, Monahan expects sales to triple next year.
There are other roadblocks to consider for Monahan and other dispensary operators to consider, as well. Lawmakers have struck down on Michigan license holders selling CBD products at their stores. Instead, the sale of hemp by-products at gas stations and other non-cannabis-related retailers will rise. The law only passed at the beginning of November, just as the two-month countdown before recreational retailers were allowed to open up shop. On the day cannabis sales are permitted, all dispensaries must have already liquidated their CBD inventory.
Lawmakers enacted new rules that also affect who can work at the dispensary. State lawmakers urged Montana cannabis regulators to consider a proposal that would ban anyone with a criminal conviction in the past three years from getting a job in the cannabis industry as a whole.
Even with regulations and rules that have confused among, well, just about everyone, it’s still a promising sign of what the cannabis industry could become. National Cannabis Industry Association’s Aaron Smith explained that while there might be reluctance in different counties to embrace the sale of cannabis, there’s a lucrative business beyond the road bumps ahead.
“it’s not unique at all. There are certainly a lot of complex issues to sort out,” said Smith of the disagreements that have occurred between the industry and lawmakers. “Mistakes will be made along the way, as have been in other states. What’s important is making sure that the will of the voters is advanced, and I think Montana’s on track for that.”