Montana Public Radio

National Groups Join Push To Legalize Marijuana In Montana

Oct 29, 2019

A Montana group pushing to legalize recreational marijuana by a citizen vote next year now has support and financial backing from two national groups. The campaign to set up a tax structure and regulations for recreational use plans to spend millions in Big Sky Country.

The national political action committee that’s successfully pushed for the legalization of marijuana in California, Maine, and Massachusetts is coming to Montana.

Montana marijuana advocacy group Coalition406 announced this week it's partnering with the D.C.-based New Approach PAC in their effort to legalize, regulate and tax adult-use of marijuana in the state. The national Marijuana Policy Project is also supporting the change in Montana.

"I have every faith that these are gonna pass," says Pepper Petersen, political director of Coalition406, which is moving forward under the name New Approach Montana.

"There seems to be an inevitability coming from the federal government. So let’s do something in Montana that we own, rather than something that D.C. hands us," Petersen says.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use. More than double that have decriminalized small amounts of the drug.

The Coalition406 group and their backers are trying to add Montana to the list of legalized states, with two ballot issues which they hope to put in front of voters in 2020.

First, the Marijuana Regulation Act, calls for legalizing, taxing, and regulating the drug.

The second part of the potential ballot package is an amendment to the state constitution. Montana’s constitution says a person is an adult at age 18. So, to regulate which adults can use the drug needs a narrowly-tailored constitutional change.

"We only want 21 and over to have access to marijuana," Petersen says.

Petersen says his group’s polling shows wide support among Montanans for regulated recreational marijuana for those 21 and older, but the state Legislature has not been as welcome to the idea. In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers voted down a bill to legalize and tax the drug. A resolution to study the potential impacts of recreational weed in the state also failed to pass.

Republican Senator Keith Regier* chaired the judiciary committee that rejected the study on a party line vote. Here’s Regier right before the vote.

"Montana has medical marijuana, and I’m just afraid that this will be seen as a first step towards legalizing marijuana. And that narrativeione is that I don't want to set out there."

But Democratic Senator Diane Sands, who sponsored the study, says she wasn’t trying to legalize weed. She says the state needs to be ready if Montana voters approve it.

"I think with a highly funded national effort to expand recreational marijuana in Montana, it is highly likely it will pass," she says.

That could force state lawmakers to debate the issue again, whether or not they want to.

The text of what voters may see on a ballot proposal to legalize marijuana isn’t finalized. The group  campaigning to remove the prohibition also still needs approval to start collecting signatures from around the state to qualify their issue for the ballot. Those signatures are due in June.

Pepper Petersen, political director for the effort, says along with its new national partners, the group could spend more than $3 million to push for legal recreational marijuana in Montana.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly named Matt Regier as the Republican state senator who chaired the judiciary committee that rejected the study resolution on marijuana.  The story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Keith Regier chaired that committee. Matt Regier is a state Representative and the son of Keith Regier. We regret the error.