In a move that advocates assert would undermine social justice objectives of the state’s new legalization law, the Montana Department of Revenue (DOR) is proposing rules prohibiting employment eligibility for anyone with a criminal conviction within the past three years – including low-level, non-violent offenses like simple marijuana possession, which is now legal under state law.
Montana regulators want any “conviction, guilty plea, or plea of no contest to a criminal offense within three years of the application or renewal” to be considered “grounds for suspension or revocation of a worker permit.” In stark contrast to other states’ cannabis employment requirements, the proposal includes violations of “any provision of the marijuana laws,” even those of other states. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system – especially drug law enforcement – have advocates concerned that racial inequality will worsen.
In an effort to aid those affected by the harsh and disproportionate overcriminalization of cannabis in the past, social justice organizations like REEForm New Jersey make moves to directly benefit those with past or current cannabis convictions as their states legalize weed without automatic expungements. Speaking of both expungement and New Jersey, another social justice organization, 420NJ, recently held an expungement clinic “where those convicted of non-violent cannabis crimes can gain insight and support on how to expunge their records.”
But regardless of the kindness and hard work of so many activists and organizations around the country, state and federal legislation always play gigantic and serious roles in what happens to people’s lives, especially those with past convictions. Pepper Peterson of the Montana Cannabis Guild believes these proposed rules “contradict legislative negotiations and intent and just appear to be a massive power grab by the DOR.” He continued, “Montana DOR just flushed restorative justice down the toilet with their absurd new rules, and to add insult to injury, they want to make it harder to be a budtender or marijuana worker now when we are in the middle of an employment crisis.”
The department has reinterpreted the policy to include a wide range of convictions that would lead to automatic bans to employment. Rep. Katie Sullivan serves on the Legislature’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee that has oversight over the department’s rulemaking. Sullivan concedes there are many new restrictions in the proposal and said, “We definitely have to be really careful and read everything.”
Defenders of the proposed regulations emphasize that the bill stipulates that people seeking employment in the cannabis sector must report felony convictions, violations of cannabis law in any other state, or any citation connected to selling alcohol or tobacco to minors. And they’re quick to point out that the new guidelines don’t automatically disqualify candidates and that there’s an appeals process for those working in the cannabis market.
Legislators will hold a public hearing on the proposal on November 30.