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Montana dispensaries, regulators prepping for recreational marijuana sales

There are now less than six months until Montana’s first legal recreational marijuana sales – set to begin on Jan. 1, 2022. That has both marijuana providers and state regulators hurrying to get ready for the major change.

Thomas Swanson, manager of Collective Elevation Helena, said he’s been thinking about how to make the transition from medical sales to adult-use sales since voters approved Initiative 190 last November. He said the state has been reforming marijuana laws every two years, so providers have gotten used to change.

“With this industry, you have to adapt or die,” he said. “You have to keep swimming.”

After weeks of debate, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 701, which completely overhauls the recreational marijuana framework that had been set up in I-190.

It allows medical marijuana providers that were operating before Nov. 3, 2020, to start selling to all adults 21 and over on Jan. 1 – but only if they are in one of the 28 counties where most voters supported the legalization measure. Once those providers’ licenses come up for renewal, they will have to get a new adult-use license for recreational sales.

For the first 18 months – through July 1, 2023 – only existing medical providers will be able to join the recreational market.

Montana currently has just over 400 registered medical marijuana dispensaries, with the vast majority of those being in counties that approved I-190. Under I-190, the first licensing for recreational sales would have started Oct. 1. Swanson said he’s satisfied with that date being pushed back.

“The initial date ramped us up a little bit,” he said. “Now that we have a little bit more time to prepare, we feel pretty comfortable with moving forward.”

The biggest change for dispensaries will be opening up to a much bigger market. Collective Elevation Helena currently has just five employees. Swanson said they’ve looked at hiring more staff to prepare for adult-use sales, but they’re facing the same labor challenges as many other businesses.

“With the corona and everything, it’s getting hard to find wanting help,” he said. “We’re not immune to that.”

Swanson said he does believe their current dispensary building is large enough to handle increased traffic.

The January start date also comes as good news for the Montana Department of Revenue, which is taking over responsibility for the state’s marijuana program. Leaders said it would have been a challenge for them to be ready by October.

“It is still aggressive, but we do feel that, for the most part, we will have the rules and the computer systems, all of those programs, in place to meet that timeline,” said Kristan Barbour, the administrator of Revenue’s new Cannabis Control Division.

Starting in July, the medical marijuana program that’s currently under the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services will be transferred to the Department of Revenue – allowing a single agency to oversee both.

“Our belief is that it will look similar – many of the same players will be involved; it will just be a more robust enforcement and regulatory aspect than, I think, what has existed under the medical,” Barbour said. “So there will be some additional sideboards that we will define in rule.”

Barbour hopes to have draft rules ready for public input by September. She said they are already looking at possible rulemaking on how marijuana cultivators can increase their growing area and on how marijuana businesses may advertise.

House Bill 249, also passed by the Legislature this year, allowed limited marijuana advertising online.

You can find Revenue’s frequently asked questions about adult-use marijuana and sign up to receive notifications about the future rulemaking process on the department’s website.

“The department is excited to get this program up and started, and we look forward to working with the public and want them to know that it is meant to be a collaborative process,” said Barbour.

Swanson said he’s waiting to see what rules come out of the department between now and January, but he’s hopeful his dispensary will be ready to accept recreational customers as soon as the state allows.

“We want to move forward just as bad as people want to come in,” he said.