New Year’s Weed: What to know before recreational marijuana hits the market
It's finally here. After Montanans voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2020 election, and the Montana Legislature hammered out a plan to regulate weed earlier this year, existing medical marijuana dispensaries are set to begin selling the drug for recreational use on New Year's Day. The new law will have big implications for anyone over the age of 21. Possession penalties may change for students. Tax dollars will roll into Missoula and the state's coffers. But Montanans who've grown and sold their own products illegally for years still have some waiting to do before the law catches up with them. News reporter Emily Tschetter joins Kaimin Cast host Austin Amestoy to break down what's changing for weed in the new year, what's staying the same, and what students need to know.

Correction: This episode has been updated to accurately reflect that Kaimin source Danny Brinkley was not drinking the day of his accident. He had been drinking the night before.

Austin Amestoy: From the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent, student-run newspaper, this is the Kaimin Cast for the week of Dec. 6.

I'm Austin Amestoy. 

It's finally here. After Montanans voted to legalize recreational marijuana in the 2020 election, and the Montana Legislature hammered out a plan to regulate weed earlier this year, existing medical marijuana dispensaries are set to begin selling the drug for recreational use on New Year's Day. The new law will have big implications for anyone over the age of 21. Possession penalties may change for students. Tax dollars will roll into Missoula and the state's coffers.

But Montanans who've grown and sold their own products illegally for years still have some waiting to do before the law catches up with them.

This week, Kaimin news reporter Emily Tschetter breaks down what's changing for weed in the new year, what's staying the same, and what students need to know.

Amestoy: Emily, welcome back to the Kaimin Cast for your second feature story of the semester.

Emily Tschetter: Hey, thank you, Austin. I'm honored to be here again, and as the most popular guest in Kaimin Cast history, since I'm the only one that's been on twice.

Amestoy: You are our only repeat offender so far, which is a good thing, because you've got another interesting story to share with us today. So from Title IX lawsuits for you, Emily, to marijuana. Let's start with some background: dispensaries will begin selling marijuana recreationally in Montana starting on January 1. How did we get to this point?

Tschetter: Medical marijuana, which I'm just going to call "med mar," because less syllables— much easier — has been legal since 2004, and it won with 61% of the vote on the ballot, so it was very popular when it first passed here, which brings us to recreational legalization, which has happened in Initiative 190 in the November 2020 election. That initiative asked voters if they wanted to legalize recreational marijuana in Montana at a 20% tax rate. 

The original initiative laid out the framework mechanisms for regulation and the testing of products as well as just over half the tax rate going to the state general fund, and the rest of it dedicated to efforts like conservation, substance abuse treatment, veterans' services and health care. That initiative passed with about 57% in favor and consuming marijuana recreationally in Montana at the age of 21 became legal immediately. 

Once we fast-forward up to the Legislative Session, they had to decide how to write the laws to regulate the recreational market and how much they would adhere to the original framework laid out in the initial ballot initiative. After a lot of high stakes battling in the Capitol with three different bill options that came down to the wire, they came up with the plan, which was House Bill 701, which was the version that was backed by Gov. Greg Gianforte. It directed a much larger portion of the revenues to the general fund than what was originally laid out in the initiative, which took away from some of the potential allocation to conservation efforts, which is what a lot of groups like MontPIRG were really excited about. But now, starting Jan. 1 2022, existing medical dispensaries in the state can be licensed to sell marijuana for recreational use. But it's not going to be until July 1, 2023, that when other companies and individuals can join the market and get licensed to grow, manufacture or sell marijuana products.

Amestoy: Thanks for that comprehensive review, Emily. Some things will change in the new year, and some things are going to stay the same when it comes to marijuana. But, as you mentioned, of course, medical marijuana has been legal in Montana for over 15 years. Customers in that industry have been riding out legal changes for years as well. You talked to a marijuana grower and user for this story, Emily, and I was wondering if you could break him down a little bit for us.

Tschetter: So I talked to a UM senior named Danny Brinkley. He's a non-traditional student. He's a 41-year-old from Santa Barbara, California and he studying psychology here. This is his sixth year studying, and he's going to graduate this year. He moved to Bozeman when he was 22 and then to Missoula to start school six years ago. He had a green card briefly in California over 10 years ago, and he has had his green card here for four years. Danny's a daily smoker, and he has even been selling weed on and off since he was 15, which he's definitely expanded over the past couple of years with his internal operation that he has now. He loved surfing skateboarding and snowboarding and basically just sought all the extreme sports and thrill seeking that he could find around him.

Danny Brinkley: "Maybe it was growing up the way I did, I always searched for external stimulation: surfing, skateboarding, whatever extreme sport I could get into." 

Tschetter: He's the type of person that always needs to be going a thousand miles an hour — just always needs external stimulation, which made when he had his accident even more devastating, since he can't live that lifestyle anymore. 

In 2006, Danny had a night of heavy drinking and a falling-out with his girlfriend at the time. He woke up and went to Bridger — if you're aware of like the Bridger Snowbowl in Bozeman — he went there to snowboard with some friends. He went for a jump that he had never done before while he was still intoxicated and rolled and he ended up breaking multiple vertebrae and going into a coma, among other injuries. When he was still in rehab, he had to operate his wheelchair, he was telling me, through this straw.

Brinkley: "At the time, I had nothing. I was driving with a — they call it a "sip-and-puff," where you blow and suck. You blow hard to drive forward, suck hard to stop, you blow soft left, you suck soft to go right. That kind of deal."

Tschetter: And he just said that it was such a devastating change from how he was living his life before that accident. Now he has limited movement in his hands, but he lives his life as a quadriplegic and is almost fully paralyzed. And now he uses marijuana daily for anxiety, general pain and, specifically, for nerve pain that accompanies his injury.

Amestoy: That's quite a story that Danny's lived through, Emily. What did he tell you about how he gets his marijuana?

Tschetter: For the most part of what he smokes himself, he will buy from dispensaries, but he grows his own weed in three tents, which bear about a pound every two months. He said that he doesn't have a very large clientele. He just has a few loyal customers who will buy large amounts from him. And what he's doing with his whole operation, he's operating outside of the law. An individual cardholder right now can possess less than an ounce of marijuana and purchase up to five ounces a month. But it is still not legal for them to sell and distribute to others, or even just grow the amount that he's growing. While his customers without green cards can now legally consume his product, he's still forced to conduct his business outside of the law.

Amestoy: Then, Emily, what's preventing him specifically in this legislation from selling his product to a dispensary once the whole recreational market opens up on the first?

Tschetter: There's just a single clause in Section 49 of House Bill 701 that just says that licenses cannot be issued to individuals or businesses to sell marijuana until July 1, 2023. Until then, only existing medical dispensaries, of which there are 57 in Missoula County, have access to the market. And they have to do every part of the process themselves — "seed to sale." There are also hopes that in doing this — not letting people enter right away — that preventing those extra firms and individuals from jumping into the market will help existing businesses in the industry survive in perpetuity without immediate, fierce competition that can happen in an industry with such rich market potential that's just opening up right away. But after that July 1 date, people like Danny can get a license to sell to dispensaries or to manufacture cannabis products. But until then, it's still illegal.

Amestoy: So Danny has a pretty complicated relationship with existing marijuana laws in Montana, as he operates to some extent as a consumer inside the law and as a as a grower and a seller outside the law. So what thoughts did he share with you about the recreational market opening up here in January?

Tschetter: I mean, just from the aspect of how it will be affecting civilians on the ground, just like people who are casual consumers, he thinks that it's generally a good thing to open up.

Brinkley: "You shouldn't have to have a medical condition, shouldn't have to have a medical condition to be able to cure a problem. You shouldn't have to go, like, if you have a depressive disorder or something wrong with you and you need to go to a psychiatrist you could be waiting forever. And maybe you don't need to go see a psychiatrist and get a pill and maybe you can just take a puff and we'll be okay."

Tschetter: He just thinks that people should be able to benefit from marijuana without having to: A, invest in a green card or: B, have an official diagnosis.

Amestoy: But until that July date comes along in 2023, when the market is fully open, there are still some changes happening on this Jan. 1 deadline, so, let's start talking about those, Emily. Specifically, let's start with taxes first. You mentioned it just now; recreational sales in Montana are going to be taxed at 20% and Missoula County voted for an additional 3% local tax. So how much money is the state expected to raise from marijuana sales? And where is that money going to be spent?

Tschetter: It is so hard to estimate right now because we have so many unknowns. We're really lucky because here on campus, we produced the primary report that people are citing for their economic estimates for what the market's going to look like. In UM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, doctors Robert Sonora and Patrick Barkey — I talked to Dr. Sonora for this — published this report in September 2020, and they estimated that there will be between $43 and $52 million of state revenue per year for the first few years of the program up until 2026. 

But, as we said, the Legislature changed some of the spending recommendations in the initiative. The initiative passed with the recommendation of 50% of the tax going to state conservation projects, but the Legislature knocked that number down to 20%, with the bulk of the money going to the state's general fund. And what the general fund is, that's just what the state draws on to pay for its biennial budget. 

Seventy-eight precent voted for the Missoula 3% tax on recreational weed, while the same tax on medical marijuana failed. But that will get just Missoula County and the city an estimated $350,000 of extra revenue. Missoula County will get half of that revenue, the city gets 45%, and the remainder goes to the state for administration costs.

Amestoy: Wow. Okay, so we're talking about large sums of money, potentially, from recreational marijuana sales statewide and locally. When the Legislature knocked down that conservation funding to 20%, I have to imagine the change didn't go over well with everyone who was involved in the fight for legalization. Is that right?

Tschetter: Yeah, they weren't pleased, I would say, at the Capitol when the Legislature cut the revenues that their causes would directly receive. I mean, most of it was going to be allocated to Montana Fish and Wildlife, but they were really excited that there would be this much more money for the state to really focus on conservation of the very unique natural resources and just the natural beauty that we have here in Montana. 

MontPIRG, which is the Montana Public Interest Research Group, fought heavily for the legislation through their canvassing efforts for initial signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, and for the initiative itself. That group is a student-directed and funded group here on campus. They emphasize student involvement in the political process and focus most of their efforts around voter registration and rights. I'm sure that you've been walking to the UC before and seen one of them at their booths. And they're always like, "Are you registered to vote?" And then everyone — 90% of the people ignore them, but they are very mighty in their constant commitment to creating voter registration. But they also have a lot of emphasis on conservation efforts, so they were really excited when there was the potential for this much of the state revenue to be going to conservation efforts in the state. They collected thousands of signatures from students and the broader Missoula community to get it on the ballot. But Tor Gudmundsson, the vice chair of MontPIRG's board of directors, said that the group is still pretty happy with the way that the bill came out, all things considered.

Tor Gudmundsson: "You know, it's absolutely not the huge projection that I-190 asked for, right? It's certainly not the spread that was initially delivered. But so few initiatives like this ever come out the other side looking exactly like they did on the way in. And as it came out of the Legislative Session, it's going to generate almost $16 million annually for the Department of Fish and Wildlife by 2025. So once it starts rolling, that's an additional $16 million to conservation efforts here in the state. And that's hard to not be really excited about. That's a huge win."

Amestoy: What about any immediate impacts when the recreational market is legalized on Jan. 1 for students on campus? You know, will UMPD's marijuana policy change at all?

Tschetter: The short answer is no. Because UM follows federal guidelines and this is a state law, and, federally, recreational marijuana use is still illegal. So there's not really going to be many changes at all, besides the fact that students over 21 possessing an ounce or less of marijuana on them can no longer be criminally charged, though, in reality, most of them usually weren't anyways.

I was talking to UMPD Chief Brad Giffen, and he was talking about, unless you're physically possessing the weed on you, it's even hard for officers to be able to detect that you're under the influence of marijuana rather than another substance like alcohol. So really, the number of citations are pretty low currently anyways. But now, they can only be penalized through the University, because any possession or use on campus is still a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. 

RAs’ roles were kind of interesting to me in the enforcement of this, but they will be the same as they are right now, which, unlike alcohol, they have to immediately involve UMPD in an instance of marijuana possession or use, and when it's just a normal alcohol citation, they have their own means to be able to deal with that and the disciplinary action themselves. But this will still require UMPD to intervene.

Amestoy: Emily, I want to return to Danny Brinkley to close us out. Here's this UM student who's at a really interesting intersection of Montana's current marijuana laws and future marijuana laws, as someone who has, legally use the substance himself, but also grows and sells it illegally, at least for now. You know, it sounds like he's at least interested in the market opening up to sellers like him, come July 2023. But all the same, he's told you that he's probably going to leave Montana soon. Why is that the case?

Tschetter: Yeah, he has pretty concrete plans to leave this summer after he graduates. So he likely won't even be in the state to see the benefits of third-party selling open up. But he's just talked about how the state's resources have basically mishandled him and his disabilities in a really horrible way. 

Brinkley: "When the federal government gives you as a disabled person paying taxes $1,000 a month to live, and this state takes a third of it, just to help you: 'I give you $600 a month to live on.'"

Tschetter: The state is supposed to give them $1,000 a month for disabilities, but the state takes away about a third of it with taxes. And living off $600 a month just is not sufficient, which is part of why the market opening up for him is a great opportunity. But he just won't be in the state by the time that it is legal. And that was part of his motivation to start selling again, at such a large scale in the first place: just that his income from the state was just not manageable to live off of and he needed to supplement it with something.

As for where the state revenues are going, he's not that concerned about it. Even though medical marijuana has helped him, the other infrastructure in Montana that's supposed to support people with disabilities and in positions like he is just has not helped him. Marijuana has helped him, but it's not his whole answer or anything, and he needs to move to fulfill his other needs sufficiently.

Similar to Danny's situation with marijuana, recreational marijuana here in the state is not some sort of sweeping solution for the state's finances, or lacking any consequences even for student enjoyment. There are still penalties at UM for possessing and using marijuana even if you're over 21. And the market surplus that this will create and extra spending for the state is not just going to be a silver bullet that solves all of our state's problems. 

Fortunately, the story of marijuana in Montana is just getting started, and it's going to be very flexible in the ways that it manifests into state spending and even just the social implications of it in our future. The Legislature will tool with these laws for years, and it's very likely that five years from now, House Bill 701 will either not be the framework that we use, or it will be fundamentally different from the way that it looks going into Jan. 1 right now. There will be plenty of time to assess the full impacts of what will happen with this industry opening up, and we just have to wait.

Amestoy: Well, Emily, thank you for breaking down the state of marijuana in Montana, and thank you for being with me to deliver our final Kaimin Cast of the semester.

Tschetter: It's been an honor Austin. Thank you so much for having me on again.

Amestoy: In his conversation with Emily, MontPIRG Vice Chair Tor Gudmundsson gave some advice for students and Montanans displeased with current marijuana regulations: speak up and speak often.

Gudmundsson: "One of the beautiful things about living here in Montana is that we have a citizen legislature, and they're capable professionals who are doing a dedicated public service, but they're also people. And there's only a million of us here in the state, so we can get a hold of them. So I would 100% encourage, as this ball keeps moving along, if citizens of Montana and especially students aren't happy with it, come change it."

Amestoy: You can read Emily's full story on Montana's recreational marijuana kickoff in this week's paper, hitting newsstands and our website on Thursday, Dec. 9. The Kaiman Cast is produced and edited by me, Austin Amestoy. Reporting by Emily Tschetter.

That's it for this week's episode, and for the fall semester at the University of Montana. I want to extend a special thanks to you, our listeners, for helping to make this podcast possible. The Kaimin Cast started as an audio experiment at the paper, but grew in leaps and bounds over the last three months, and it's because of you. 

We'll return in January with our first regular episode of the spring semester. Happy holidays, and I'll see you there.