(KPAX) HELENA — A state lawmaker wants to delay the sale of voter-approved recreational marijuana in Montana until 2023, saying he doubts the state can be ready to implement the massive new program by late this year.

“It’s an implementation time frame that doesn’t make any sense,” Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, told MTN News Saturday. “I wonder if the voters had any idea when they adopted this initiative that they were going to increase the state bureaucracy by 100 people within nine months.”

Mercer has introduced a bill to delay the starting points for recreational marijuana in Montana by one year. It will be heard Friday in the House Business and Labor Committee.

In November, by a 57 percent to 43 percent margin, Montana voters passed Initiative 190, which says recreational marijuana can be sold in the state starting January 2022. It also directs the state to have rules in place to accept license applications from potential sellers starting October 1.

Mercer’s House Bill 457 would delay each of those deadlines by one year.

Meanwhile, Governor Greg Gianforte’s administration is working on its own plans for implementing I-190, including changes in how the marijuana tax revenue – 20 percent levied on the retail price -- should be spent.

The initiative specified eight programs that should receive marijuana tax revenue, including state parks, wildlife habitat acquisition, veterans’ services, local governments and some health-care workers’ pay. The Gianforte administration plans to distribute more of the money to human-service programs.

The lengthy bill is still being drafted, an administration official said.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings (MTN News)
Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings (MTN News)

Mercer said his proposal is not part of the Gianforte administration’s plans.

Mercer, a former U.S. attorney for Montana, said it would be a “Herculean effort” to put in place and hire all of the additional people needed to start administering the program by Oct. 1 of this year.

He noted that the state Department of Revenue has said it would need 35 investigators, 21 license permitters and at least another 20 personnel, and that other state agencies would need more positions as well. “You’re talking about this massive expansion of government,” Mercer said. “In order to try to do this in a coherent and rational way, to say that this can all be stood up by October 1, is a mistake.”

He also noted that I-190 is being challenged by a lawsuit in state District Court in Helena, arguing that the measure should be invalidated because it illegally generates revenue and illegally appropriates state money. It’s not wise to set up the recreational marijuana regulatory structure and sales if the court may end up throwing it out, he said.