Montana’s legislature seems to be suffering from some last-minute indecisiveness just weeks before the state implements changes to rules governing legal medical cannabis. Slated to take effect on April 10, now this state’s medical marijuana program might be delayed. The hangup has to do with rules governing the production end of the cannabis industry. The concern from lawmakers is that larger producers can grow so much cannabis, they’ll drive out smaller producers.
Montana Lawmakers Say “Canopy Limit” Rules Are Bad For Small Businesses
Under Montana’s current rules, producers are subject to a “canopy limit” that determines how much cannabis they can grow. The argument from legislators who want to delay the start of the state’s program is that the limits are in fact too high. This, they say, gives an unfair market advantage to large commercial growers.
Specifically, the rules set a 50 square foot limit for each patient registered with the state’s program. In other words, producers cannot grow more than 50 square feet of cannabis per patient registered with the state.
Kate Cholewa, spokesperson for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, says that amount of canopy space is way too excessive for the state’s medical cannabis program. Cholewa points out that the 50 square feet limit is twice the space allowed for growers in Washington state. Washington has a recreational market in addition to its medical industry.
Legislators in Montana are echoing Cholewa’s concerns. Rep. Tom Jacobson (D-Great Falls) said the current rules leave the door open for larger growers to dominate the market with lower prices.
“That will force small producers out because they won’t be able to compete at that scale,” Jacobson said.
And he’s not alone. State Sen. Jill Cohenour (D-Helena) says the canopy limit decision may have been premature. “I’m concerned that some of this stuff was done quickly and maybe with limited information,” she said.
Both Democratic legislators serve on the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee of the Montana Legislature. Committee members raised their concerns about cultivation space at a meeting Wednesday.
By the end of that meeting, the committee had approved a motion to draft a letter recommending the health department to change the rules and postpone the effective date.
This State’s Medical Marijuana Program Might Be Delayed
The letter will go under review by the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee. This committee conducts the primary oversight of the state’s medical cannabis program.
Erica Johnston, who manages operations services for the state health department, said the committee’s letter is just the latest in the deluge of feedback they’ve received about the grow area limits.
But Johnston also admitted that she wasn’t aware of the reasons for setting the canopy limit to 50 square feet per patient.
The rules, she said, “were made based on what we found in other areas and what we theoretically in design thought would be a good idea,” Johnston said.
Consistent, negative feedback about the limit, however, may compel Montana lawmakers and regulators to revisit the issue. According to Johnston, the health department is already looking at ways to modify the canopy limit rule.
And that’s why this state’s medical marijuana program might be delayed past the April 10 deadline.
In addition to concerns about cultivation space, there’s growing concern the health department isn’t ready for implementation in any case.
With less than a month to go, the Montana Health Department has its work cut out for it. They’re still interviewing facility inspectors. No clear guidelines for product testing are in place. And providers just have to register and get their license by the end of the year, not by April.
In fact, the health department wants to change the rules on how it can change the rules. This way, it will be more prepared to make quicker rule changes in the future.
Montana’s Medical Marijuana Program On Hold
No doubt, Montana is still trying to dial in the right regulations, rules, and procedures for its medical cannabis program. But newness and lack of precedent seem to have gummed up the works.
Indeed, some state lawmakers think Montana should throw the baby out with the bathwater, and start from scratch.
“We’re already in the business,” Rep Alan Refield (R-Livingston) said. “But we don’t have the rules.’
In whatever form legal medical marijuana ultimately takes in Montana, it’s certain that it will come with more rules and regulations. The hope is to set policy that works to the benefit of patients and small producers, not just large-scale commercial growers. Until then, it’s likely that this state’s medical marijuana program might be delayed.
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