Committee Not Convinced Montana’s Medical Marijuana Program Is Ready For Rollout

Photo Credit: Larry Mayer

Issues raised during a legislative committee meeting Wednesday could mean more rule changes for the state’s medical marijuana industry just weeks before final rules take effect.

Lawmakers in the Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee of the Montana Legislature aired concerns about the administrative rules for the program.

The rules, finalized last month by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, take effect April 10 and require medical marijuana providers to submit to product testing and inspections, among other things.

But committee members felt the program might not be ready for full implementation.

“I’m concerned that some of this stuff was done quickly and maybe with limited information,” said state Sen. Jill Cohenour, D-Helena.

The committee approved a motion to draft a letter of recommendation that the health department change some administrative rules and postpone the effective date.

That letter will go to the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which has primary oversight of the medical marijuana program.

A main concern raised during Wednesday’s committee meeting dealt with the amount of marijuana providers can grow. Under the state rules, a provider can grow 50 square feet of marijuana for each registered patient.

Committee chair Rep. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls, said this could influence the market, allowing commercial growers to dominate the market with large operations and low prices.

“That will force small producers out because they won’t be able to compete at that scale,” Jacobson said.

That floor space — 50 square feet for each patient — may also be excessive. Kate Cholewa, a spokeswoman for the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, told the committee that the limit gives a producer twice the cultivation space as a grower in the Washington state recreational market.

Cholewa said the so-called canopy limit is the organization’s No. 1 concern. Hamilton provider Tayln Lang said he worried that overproduction would benefit large-scale producers and threaten his small business.

Erica Johnston, an operations services branch manager for the state health department, told the committee that they received a lot of feedback on the grow area allowance.

She said the product tracking system should help to track how much marijuana cardholders consume, but she didn’t have information on how regulators decided on the 50-square-foot figure.

“Some of those rules were made based on what we found in other areas and what we theoretically in design thought would be a good idea,” Johnston said.

Lawmakers also expressed concern about how ready the health department was for the April 10 effective date.

Inspections of grow facilities will be required, but the department is still interviewing for most of its inspectors. Product testing will be required, but it’s still not entirely clear how that system will operate.

On top of that, providers have until the end of the year to register with the tracking and licensure computer systems, depending on their renewal dates.

Rep. Alan Redfield, R-Livingston, balked at the process, saying he would throw out the program and start from scratch.

“We’re already in the business,” Redfield said. “But we don’t have the rules.”

Legislators suggested that the health department revisit some of the rules. That action would have to come from the Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee. Jacobson said a representative from his committee would bring the recommendation.

Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee’s recommendation is for the health department to re-examine its rules on allowable amounts for providers and licensing for testing labs and providers.

There is a formal legal process for legislative committees to object to an adopted department rule, but Johnston urged against that route. She said that the health department is already looking at alternatives to the 50-square-foot standard.

She also said that the department’s legal team is looking at how they might be able to make the changes internally. That could include emergency rulemaking, which the department used last fall to put some new rules in place during the drafting process.

“We are looking at our ability to adopt emergency rules to address some of your concerns today,” Johnston said.

As it stands, the retooled medical marijuana program, with scores of new regulations, takes effect on April 10. The extent of that effective date is now pending with more changes possibly coming from the health department.

The Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee meets on March 21.