Daily Inter Lake

In Montana, medical marijuana was legalized in 2004 through a ballot initiative. This time around, voters will decide if marijuana should be legalized for recreational use among adults 21 and older.

If passed, Montana residents would be able to use and grow limited amounts of marijuana for non-medical purposes starting Jan. 1, 2021.

Advocates tout a controlled and regulated system that has potential to generate millions in annual tax revenue, while opponents argue societal and public safety harms associated with legalization will outweigh any revenue increase, citing data coming in from states such as Colorado, whose residents voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012 with retail sales starting in 2014.

On the ballot, Montana residents will see Initiative 190 (I-190), accompanied by Constitutional Initiative 118 (CI-118).

If passed, I-190 would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana sales for adults 21 and over. CI-118 must pass to set the minimum age to buy or use marijuana at 21.

Under I-90, adults would be able to use or possess one ounce or less of marijuana, or not more than 8 grams in concentrated form. It would also allow an individual to grow no more than four mature marijuana plants and four seedlings in a locked area of their residence, beyond public view.

The Montana Department of Revenue would be responsible for regulation. Advertising marijuana and related products would be prohibited under I-190.

Additionally, people serving sentences for an act allowed by I-190 may request resentencing or an expungement of the conviction.

As part of I-190, non-medical marijuana would be taxed at 20%. The ballot initiative states 10.5% of the tax revenue will go to the state general fund, with the rest going to conservation programs, health-care costs, substance-abuse treatment and prevention, veterans’ programs, and localities where marijuana is sold.

ACCORDING TO a University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research study released in September, the 20% tax has potential to generate between $43.4 and $52 million annually. Over a five-year period from 2022 to 2026, the study projects a total of $236.4 million in revenue.

The independent study was commissioned by Helena-based New Approach Montana, the political campaign behind the pro-legalization efforts, to quantify the potential size of the recreational marijuana marketplace in Montana. The bureau does not endorse or oppose any ballot initiatives, according to a press release from the University of Montana.

Tourism sales would be an important source of the tax base, with authors of the study noting more than 15% of visitors traveling for leisure to states with legalized recreational marijuana, visit retail stores.

“We estimate that in 2022, sales of recreational cannabis to tourists will generate almost $5.9 million in tax revenue. By 2026, the projected revenue could climb to $16.8 million,” said study co-author Robert Sonora, associate director at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

To put the question of legalization directly to voters, New Approach Montana gathered more than 50,000 signatures to put I-190 on the ballot, and 80,000 signatures for CI-118, quite a feat during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Pepper Petersen, spokesperson for New Approach Montana.

“[It took] 200 people and six weeks,” Petersen said, in what would usually take months.

New Approach Montana was formed in October 2019 when Coalition406 joined with the national Marijuana Policy Project, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. To date, the campaign has reported receiving $6.96 million in cash and in-kind contributions, with the highest contributors being North Fund and New Approach PAC, according to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

“If we can take a state like Montana and get recreational use legalized, it shows conservatives even accept these policies,” Petersen said.

Petersen said he became involved in the issue of legalization as a medical marijuana patient when he got kidney disease. He said he realizes the value of legalizing recreational marijuana for people who don’t want to get a medical marijuana card.

“I’ve gone around Montana and talked to thousands and thousands who don’t want to get a medical marijuana card because they don’t want to be on a list and veterans locked out by the VA unless they pay another doctor,” Petersen said.

“As an adult you should be able to decide what’s best for you,” he said. “None of the apocalyptic predictions opponents lay out, or ‘Reefer Madness’ predictions, have come true. The overwhelming success of medical marijuana programs are part of that,” Petersen said.

“We have a year for the rulemaking process. We know it needs to be done,” he said.

BOBBY LONG, the owner of Flower medical marijuana dispensary, supports legalizing cannabis for recreational use. However, he does not support I-190. He believes the initiative was crafted with too much involvement from out-of-state interests.

Long, who operates two dispensary locations in Evergreen and Missoula, said the 20% tax is too high, describing it as a “sin tax.” The initiative wouldn’t change the 4% tax on medical marijuana.

“The economic impact is undeniable,” Long said. “I think the biggest concern in my mind is I’ve seen recreational programs from a distance over-tax cannabis. I’ve seen lawmakers get giddy for tax revenue. It’s happening right now. The tax markup makes it so expensive and nobody can buy it, it becomes a joke. You’ll have a whole bunch of people growing a Schedule 1 substance, and now have nowhere to sell it and have massive black market activity.”

As a medical marijuana provider since 2008, Long also started out as a patient. He began growing marijuana to relieve back pain.

“I say cannabis is medicine for anybody that chooses to consume it as an adult,” Long said. “If taxed, it certainly shouldn’t be done at a higher rate.”

He also wonders if it’s too soon for recreational users to come on the scene and possibly tarnish the public’s perception of marijuana as a medicine versus a lifestyle product.

“We fought really hard to come up with a working system for medical cannabis. One that works for patients and one that works for businesses and providers. We’re still getting established. We have a program that’s not offensive and I think the community accepts it.”

THE HELENA-based Montana Contractors Association, whose membership consists of general contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, opposes the ballot initiatives.

“On a construction site, safety is the first and foremost important thing,” said David Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association. “We feel legalizing a Schedule 1 drug does not help a worksite be safer.”

Smith said right now, there is an extreme workforce shortage and finding employees is difficult.

“If there is another hurdle, i.e., being sober on the job, makes it even more difficult,” Smith said, in addition to concerns how it affects mental health for workers in a job that can already be isolating when workers are often on the road.

The association has contributed financially to the Wrong for Montana campaign launched by Billings car dealer Stephen Zabawa to oppose legalizing recreational marijuana. According to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, the committee has reported receiving $78,375 in cash and in-kind contributions.

“I fail to see how introducing recreational marijuana makes anything safer in Montana,” Smith said.

Looking at states such as Colorado, Smith said the effects of legalized recreational marijuana extend beyond the construction industry.

“Drug cartel activity has increased, personal insurance has increased, crime has increased, suicide has increased, homelessness has increased, societal costs have increased, youth use has increased [compared to the national average],” Smith said, gleaning information from a 2019 report on the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado, compiled by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Strategic Intelligence Unit.

“There’s a cost to our community to introducing a federally banned drug,” Smith said.

The report also shows medical and recreational marijuana taxes made up 0.9% of Colorado’s state budget.

BOTH ADVOCATES and opponents refer to law enforcement resources as an area that will be impacted by legalization.

Currently, at the local level, simple marijuana possession is typically treated with citations and fines versus arrests and jail time, according to Kalispell Police Department Chief Doug Overman.

“To place someone in custody for simple marijuana possession doesn’t happen very often,” Overman said.

In 2019, Kalispell Police Department issued 61 citations for possession; in 2018, 91 citations were issued and in 2017, 82.

“Most marijuana enforcement these days is incidental,” he said, for example, a baggie of marijuana being found during a search on an arrest warrant for a different crime.

Overman doesn’t think legalization will necessarily lessen the burden of law enforcement duties or resources, but rather will shift it to other areas such as impaired driving or illegal use among youth.

According to the 2019 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 40% of high school student respondents have used marijuana.

Overman and Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino agreed that legalizing marijuana for recreational use is a complex issue.

“The decision to legalize is a complicated one that is not a simple change in law, but a change in what we all will see in the open,” Heino said.

“This will change our community and state forever from the information on youth use to the increase in crime. The voters will decide whether this is what is right for our state,” Heino added.

Other states considering marijuana measures in November include Arizona, Mississippi, New Jersey and South Dakota.

If legalized, Montana would join 11 states that allow recreational use including: Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.

Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana.

However, marijuana remains illegal under federal law as a Schedule I substance.

Hilary Matheson is a reporter for the Daily Inter Lake. She may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

Q&A with a doctor

Below is a special Q&A with Dr. Timothy Obermiller, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. Obermiller answered the Daily Inter Lake’s questions about marijuana’s effects on health via email.

— What is the safest way/form to consume marijuana?

All routes of administration have safety issues. Smoking or inhaled cannabis has a rapid onset and relatively short duration of action (2-4 hours) which allows users to more precisely regulate the effect. However, cannabis smoke contains many of the same lung irritants and carcinogens as cigarette smoke and can result in an acute, small and short-lived risk of heart attack and stroke.

Edible or oral cannabis has a slower onset of action (30-60 minutes) and longer duration of effect (4-12 hrs.) which can lead to inadvertent overdosing. Users may take repeated doses to while awaiting the desired effect resulting in an eventual overdose as each prior ingestion begins to take effect. Some edible cannabis resembles candy, and there have been reported cases of children mistakenly ingesting cannabis “candy” with adverse consequences.

— What are some health benefits of consuming marijuana (recreational versus medicinal use)?

Cannabis is considered by the FDA to be a schedule I drug with no currently accepted medical purpose and a high abuse potential. However, medical use is legal in more than two dozen countries. In the US, it is subject to contradictory legal regulation under state and federal law. Among approved medical uses in various countries is the treatment of pain and muscle spasticity due to multiple sclerosis and intractable childhood epilepsy. Synthetic THC (Marinol) is classified under schedule III and approved by the FDA for oral administration in the treatment of anorexia with weight loss in patients with AIDS, and nausea and vomiting in patients receiving chemotherapy of cancer. Other commonly reported, but unapproved uses of cannabis, is the treatment of chronic pain, inflammation, muscle spasm, tremors, anxiety, insomnia, nausea, weight loss, and glaucoma.

— What are the major health risks?

Major health risks, including the small risk of heart attack and stroke, include acute impairment of concentration, memory learning and coordination. This likely explains the significant association of cannabis use with injury and death from motor vehicle accidents. Chronic use has been associated with cognitive impairment, poor school or work performance, lower educational attainment, and mental health disorders. When cannabis is used chronically during adolescence it has been strongly associated with the development of schizophrenia. Other medical conditions associated with cannabis include periodontal disease, episodic intractable vomiting, and decreased sperm counts in males. The rising potency of marijuana poses additional, yet undetermined risk, particularly in young people whose brains are still developing.

— Is there any definitive research out there regarding health benefits/risks associated with short-term versus long-term marijuana use?

The short-term effects and risks of marijuana use are better understood. THC stimulates parts of the brain that elicit pleasure producing euphoria and a tranquil feeling. However, this is accompanied by an acute impairment of perception, memory and thinking (cognition) that can result in short term adverse consequences. The current understanding of long-term effects on health are more limited. Studies have suggested associations with mental health, brain development resulting in decreasing thinking and learning ability, and the accompanying effects on the quality of life. Therefore, nothing definitive.

— Does consuming marijuana come with more/less health risks than, say, alcohol?

While some studies indicate that limited alcohol consumption can have health benefits, there is no question that alcoholism with its serious effects on the liver, brain, heart, pancreas and other organs, as well as its significant effect on behavior and lifestyle poses significant health risks. Relatively speaking other than light social drinking, the research available indicates that limited cannabis use poses less health risks than other recreational drugs.

— Is marijuana addictive?

Yes. Cannabis use disorder occurs in approximately 10% of users and is much more common when use is begun before the age of 18. It is characterized by impairment of thinking (cognition), poor school and work performance, and mental health disorders. This disorder is associated with dependence which by definition means that a user develops withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug. These symptoms can include irritability, restlessness, depression, insomnia, poor appetite, and physical discomfort which can last up to two weeks after cannabis is discontinued. Actual addiction can occur in more severe cases of cannabis use disorder when the user cannot cease even though use is interfering with their life; job, marriage, educational pursuits etc.

— If it is legalized and regulated, how might regulation help consumers make better informed decisions about the drug and their health?

Legalization and regulation could permit improved cannabis formulations by actual pharmaceutical companies with the experience and available technologies to guarantee more uniform potencies and dosing to better assure a more anticipated effect and reduce the risk of adverse effects. Uniformed potencies and product labeling, coupled with consumer education about studied health benefits, risks and warnings would help consumers make better informed decisions.

In contrast, societal acceptance and availability could further provide children with access to use cannabis and result in potential adverse consequences which appear to be particularly associated with cannabis use at an earlier age.

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