July 18, 2022
MainStreetMontana.com
BY: 
 
DailyMontanan.com
Marijuana dispensary

 Top Shelf Botanicals is just outside of Philipsburg city limits and is the sole dispensary in Granite County. On Sept. 4, they have to return to only medical marijuana sales after Granite County opted out of recreational legalization on June 7. / Contributed by Top Shelf Botanicals

 

Kendrick Richmond moved from South Carolina to Philipsburg to start work at his friend’s dispensary when it opened in June 2021 and had no interest in getting involved in local politics.

As a long-time medical marijuana user himself, Richmond came to help people find products that fit their needs and was delighted when recreational sales became reality in Granite County on Jan. 1.

He said Top Shelf Botanicals, the sole dispensary in Granite County, sees upwards of 80 percent of its customer base come in without green cards, but almost all are seeking relief for medical issues.

“If they don’t have green cards they’re alienated to a degree, and now they can come in regardless,” Richmond said. “I’m basically a car salesman. I’m just here to put you in the right model with the right strain based on what you’re telling me.”

Legalization meant the business could help more people, but he never expected it would put Top Shelf Botanicals in a precarious state.

Montana first passed medical marijuana in 2004. Then, a bill in 2011 squashed most access to medical pot until a ballot initiative approved by 58 percent of voters revamped it in 2016.

Four years later, Montanans said yes to recreational marijuana with nearly 57 percent of the vote. Initiative 190 legalized adult-use cannabis by default in the counties that voted for it; it meant voters in the other counties would have to bring the matter to the ballot again for legalization in their jurisdictions.

In 2021, with as much as $52 million projected to fill state coffers annually through new tax revenue, the Montana Legislature hammered out implementation of recreational weed in House Bill 701. One provision allows counties and municipalities to vote to opt out of legalization.

This year, the state has pulled in $18.7 million in new revenue so far, but the opt-out provision has uprooted Richmond’s sense of stability in the new recreational market for small dispensaries like Top Shelf Botanicals.

Now, cannabis businesses and advocates see no end in sight for counties re-voting on the issue. Kate Cholewa, government affairs lobbyist with the Cannabis Industry Association, said the upending of the recreational market through opt-out votes is not fair for dispensaries.

“The opt-out provision is very problematic, and I think it’s more problematic than people recognized at the time. What other business would people accept being in the position of potentially losing their business every two years?” Cholewa said. “That’s the position they’ve all been put in. They’ve put it in local governments’ hands to destroy millions of dollars in investment. The provision is just patently unfair.”

 

What other business would people accept being in the position of potentially losing their business every two years?

– Kate Cholewa

 

Opting in, opting out

 

Top Shelf Botanicals expanded to recreational sales when legalization took effect on Jan. 1, and Richmond was disappointed when not even six months later, Granite County opted out of adult-use cannabis sales on June 7. Voters there had approved I-190 by nearly 55 percent, and he said he feels frustrated that his dispensary’s non-medical sales will end on Sept. 4, just months after beginning.

In response, Richmond drafted a new initiative within two days of the primary and is now using the same provision in HB 701 to collect petition signatures to get the recreational question back on the ballot. If successful, the measure could make Granite County the first in Montana to opt out and then opt back into adult-use cannabis after the initial 2020 vote.

As of the beginning of July he had fewer than 100 signatures of the roughly 375 needed, or 15 percent of the county’s population, by Aug. 8 to get it on the November ballot.

“With gas prices and crazy inflation, telling people that have a need for this after September 4 that they need to go to another city is just disheartening,” Richmond said. “With a new vote, we can hopefully move on and realize it doesn’t harm children or deplete resources when regulated correctly. Prohibition doesn’t solve anything.”

 

Prohibition doesn't solve anything

– Kendrick Richmond

Meanwhile, according to Steve Zabawa, founder of anti-recreational weed coalition Safe Montana, petitioning efforts are underway in Cascade County, Carbon County, Ravalli County, and Flathead County, among others, to opt out of adult-use cannabis legalization.

“Thank the Lord that in House Bill 701, there’s an opt-out provision for counties and municipalities that did not like the way it ended up.” Zabawa said. “It’s not up to county commissioners to decide. It’s up to voters now that everything has settled down, and we know exactly where the money is going and what the effects are.”

Since the I-190 vote in 2020, Dawson County has been the only county to opt into adult-use cannabis regulation after turning it down by 53.6 percent. Granite County has been the only one to opt out, so half of Montana’s 56 counties have recreational sales bans in place because their voters turned down the initiative.

 

Other restrictions and legislative debates

 

Some major municipalities also have special restrictions, like Billings opting out within city limits in a 2021 ballot initiative. Other cities have heavy recreational sale zoning limits, like Kalispell restricting dispensaries only to industrial zones within city limits, and Great Falls zoning adult-use cannabis sales out of city limits entirely.

A dispensary-owning couple is suing Great Falls for the city council’s ban on sales within the city without prior ballot initiative approval, and an initiative solidifying the ban is on the ballot in November.

Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, is in support of an official ban in the city and Cascade County partially due to concerns of people driving under the influence of marijuana on the highway next to her home. She also did not approve of how the tax revenue allocation changed between the structure voters approved of in I-190 and the finalized version in HB 701, a criticism Zabawa shares.

“I believe people voted for it, for the funding and where it was going, not really for the recreational marijuana. We want a true vote where we’re asking about marijuana and only marijuana,” Sheldon-Galloway said. “It never should have made it to the ballot with the wording that it had on it because it falsified where the money went.”

Zabawa advocated for the opt-out provision in HB 701 but still brought the funding structure in I-190 to court. His group dropped the lawsuit after the bill’s passage allowed for strict state control over the industry’s regulation and created the main mechanism he is using to overturn legalization in individual counties.

Zabawa, a Billings native, focused the bulk of his efforts since I-190’s passage on campaigning with Safe Montana in Yellowstone County, where voters have seen marijuana measures on Election Day three years in a row. Although Billings opted out of adult-use cannabis sales in 2021 and Yellowstone County narrowly approved of I-190 in 2020, Zabawa’s efforts for Yellowstone County to opt out were unsuccessful on June 7, with 55 percent voting in favor of keeping recreational sales.

Yellowstone County has sold the most adult-use cannabis of any county in the state, totaling at almost $15.5 million as of June. The Cannabis Control Division estimates so far the state has received $18.7 million in adult-use cannabis taxes alone, which is enough to meet the obligations of HB 701. The first $6 million goes to the Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment Account, or HEART Fund, then the rest will go to FWP and the veterans account with some left over for the state’s general fund.

Zabawa claims the 2022 ballot text reading “non-medical marijuana” instead of “adult-use cannabis” in the 2021 Billings ballot confused some voters on June 7 and may have influenced the vote outcome.

“If you use the word ‘medical’ it sways about 10 percent of people because they vote in favor even though it has nothing to do with medical marijuana. Nobody knows what non-medical marijuana is,” Zabawa said. “In 2020, there was big money behind the effort. If there’s no money involved and it’s simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on recreational, it fails.”

However, Zach Schopp, president of cannabis advocacy group Better for Montana, said the Yellowstone County vote had nothing to do with misinterpretation over the ballot text and was successful because of popular support for legalization.

“Our opposition is grasping at straws, and we could unite against a common enemy in this election. When they took it to the county issue and threatened our livelihoods, we took it personally and had to activate voters, there was no other option,” Schopp said. “If you tell me 7,000 people didn’t know what they were voting for, you must really think we’re stupid. No matter the wording, it’s clear the people want weed.”

It’s not only his opponents who are quibbling about problematic language, though. Richmond also said the confusing ballot text in Granite County may have influenced its result to overturn recreational use.

 

Other strategies

 

Zabawa’s plans to work toward banning recreational sales in more parts of the state do not end in his home county. Along with the petitions in counties that saw close margins in the I-190 vote, he has aspirations to get the proposed recreational ban on the ballot in Gallatin County, which voted 65.6 percent in favor of legalization in 2020.

And Safe Montana’s efforts do not end with using HB 701’s opt out provisions. Zabawa said he is looking into employing alternative legal routes, such as modeling legislation off a failed Idaho rule that would make ballot initiative efforts more difficult by raising signature requirements. Opponents of the Idaho legislation, according to US News, said the law would have protected people with “less popular political opinions.”

“Safe Montana is going to use every legal avenue to eliminate recreational marijuana out of the state of Montana and out of the United States,” Zabawa said. “There’s nothing good about dope for our families, that’s why I’m committed to these efforts. People get stoned immediately when they get it, so do we want more stoners? Because that’s what happens when you legalize it.”

 

People get stoned immediately when they get it, so do we want more stoners? Because that's what happens when you legalize it.

– Steve Zabawa

So far, Great Falls has the only confirmed adult-use cannabis re-vote on a municipal ballot, but with Safe Montana planning to continue opt-out efforts even past the November election cycle, Richmond hopes Granite County’s possible re-legalization through his initiative will show other opted-out counties that their marijuana policies are not permanent.

“I’ve never had anybody arrested with my products or around town causing problems, so although there’s so much stigma around this little plant in the ground, it gives people so many different reliefs,” Richmond said. “There’s plenty of other things that could be focused on besides this one little pot shop that could barely fit a Volkswagen bug inside of it, and I hope we can move on with this vote.”

Last year’s dam malfunction was “probably not a catastrophic event” for the fishery, the company said at a meeting where it outlined its plan to mitigate impacts to the Madison River.

Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

WEST YELLOWSTONE —  At a Tuesday event, NorthWestern Energy outlined its plan to prevent future Hebgen Dam malfunctions like the one that dewatered the Madison River late last year, cutting flow to one of the state’s flagship trout streams in half in a matter of minutesRepresentatives from the company, which operates the 108-year-old dam under a hydropower license administered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, also presented a plan to monitor the Nov. 30 event’s impact on the Madison River’s fishery, which is a cornerstone of Madison County’s economy.

Approximately 20 people attended the presentation, which followed a format similar to an informational meeting NorthWestern hosted in Ennis in April.

In addition to reviewing the event that led to the dam malfunction — the failure of a coupling on the dam’s gate stem that broke, freezing the outflow gate in a nearly closed position and restricting the amount of water exiting Hebgen Reservoir for a 46-hour period — the state’s largest energy utility discussed its plan to replace other couplings that perform a similar function in August.

A third-party analysis of the failed coupling found that the alloy used to fabricate the part reacted poorly with the “chemical composition of the environment” it was located in, according to NorthWestern’s hydro superintendent Jeremy Butcherwho oversees operation and maintenance of dams operated by the company.

This NorthWestern Energy diagram demonstrates the relationship between Hebgen Reservoir, Hebgen Dam, the Madison River and downstream lakes like Earthquake Lake and Ennis Lake.

“‘Stress corrosion cracking’ was the term that was used,” Butcher said, adding that all four such couplings that allow dam operators to raise and lower Hebgen Dam’s outflow gate are slated for replacement during a roughly three-week period in August. 

In addition to the new coupling fabricated by an Anaconda company in the hours after the dam malfunction, which is working as anticipated, operators have a temporary back-up installed. Cables threaded through two 20-ton chain hoists allow operators to raise and lower the outflow gate in the event of another coupling failure, he said.

Butcher also said the company has installed an alarm system that will alert operators of sudden decreases in flow registered by stream gauges on the Madison River.

 

WHITEHALL – The Montana Department of Transportation and Riverside Contracting will
begin milling and paving work on the Whitehall East Project Monday, July 18. This project
will resurface and rehabilitate approximately 6 miles of Montana Highway 69 (MT 69) east
of Whitehall.
The process of milling and repaving the roadway means that the presence of construction
will increase significantly. Motorists should expect possible delays when traveling through
work zones along this stretch of highway. MDT estimates work in town will last from three
to four weeks depending on weather. Following construction in town, the project will
proceed east along the highway before ending at the intersection of MT 69 and MT 2.
Crews will be off the road by 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 21, and will return on Monday,
July 25, to accommodate Frontier Days. MDT and Riverside Contracting are committed to
reducing traffic impacts as much as possible.
“Milling and paving MT 69 is the single largest aspect of the Whitehall East Project,” said
MDT Butte District Engineering Project Manager Gary Berg. “It is the part of the project
that will take the most time to complete. Please slow down and use caution when traveling
through the project area as road conditions will change daily.”
During construction, motorists can expect:
• Traffic will be reduced to a single lane.
• Traffic signals, pilot cars and flaggers will direct motorists through work zones.
• Up to 15-minute delays.
• Reduced speeds.
• Width restrictions. (Visit www.511mt.net for the most up-to-date width restrictions)
• Work will be noisy and dusty.
• Work can take place during daylight hours from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
• Work zones can be up to two miles in length.
This preventative maintenance project will extend the life of MT 69 and provide a smooth
driving surface for many years. Construction is expected to be completed in fall 2022.
More information about the planned improvements and construction activities can be found
at: https://www.mdt.mt.gov/pubinvolve/whitehalleast/.

2701 Prospect
PO Box 201001
Helena MT 59620-1001

Montana Department of Transportation


https://www.mdt.mt.gov/visionzero/

Despite flooding that has closed parts of Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman hotels are still fetching head-spinning rates.

Continuing a trend from last summer, some downtown Bozeman hotels are again fetching head-spinning nightly rates. Credit: Nick Ehli / MTFP

BOZEMAN — Unlike smaller towns near the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, there are so far few indications that Bozeman will be taking a hit on travel and tourism as a result of devastating flooding that wrecked access roads and other facilities in and near the park.

Prices for hotel rooms throughout the city are still running at head-spinning high rates, even after the closure last week of the northern entrances to the park, with some places asking and getting well over $500 a night.

Even higher rates for hotel rooms existed in 2021. Prices for lodging increased significantly last year in part because of the easing of the pandemic from 2020, said Brian Sprenger, president and CEO of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. “People were willing to pay those prices,” Sprenger said.

Several hotel operators in Bozeman were reluctant to speak on the record about pricing and impacts on tourism, but some who did expressed optimism for a successful summer.

“We’re not too concerned,” said Cameron Carter, who works the front desk at the RSVP Hotel on Seventh Avenue. According to Expedia.com, the RSVP was asking $372 a night for the weekend of July 15-17. “We do rank our prices on what other hotels are doing so if they go up, we go up. If they go down, we go down,” Carter said.

“Bozeman is not being too affected by the flooding at all.”

Providing some ballast for the expectations on a profitable summer was the announcement that the southern entrance to Yellowstone through West Yellowstone would reopen on Wednesday.

Sprenger said it is likely people who already made reservations to visit Montana this summer will adapt their plans according to where they can travel in Yellowstone and elsewhere. 

“It really comes down to what was their expectation for coming out here,” Sprenger said. “Was it absolutely Yellowstone Park or was it a western vacation? Was it Montana scenery and Yellowstone was a part of that? So it is a little bit tough to define because each individual has their own expectation.”

A representative with the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce did not respond to a telephone message and email seeking comment.

“It really comes down to what was their expectation for coming out here. Was it absolutely Yellowstone Park or was it a western vacation?”

BRIAN SPRENGER, PRESIDENT AND CEO OF BOZEMAN YELLOWSTONE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

National Park officials have announced that beginning Wednesday, the park will allow visitors access to the south loop of Yellowstone, with access from Bozeman through West Yellowstone. Accessible areas will include Madison, Old Faithful, Grant Village, Lake Village, Canyon Village and Norris.

The park will be using an alternating license plate system, allowing access to cars with plate numbers ending in odd numbers on odd days and even numbers on even days. Personalized plates will be in the odd category, and plates with a mix of letters and numbers will use the last numerical digit to determine what days they may enter. 

“Thanks to the tremendous efforts of our teams and partners, we are prepared to open the south loop of Yellowstone,” Superintendent Cam Sholly said in a statement. 

The north and northeast entrances to the park remain closed to visitors, and the towns outside of those entrances are looking at a rough economic summer.

Sprenger noted that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Montana do not arrive by airplane, so he was expecting limited impact on operations at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, by far the state’s busiest airport. 

“We expected this year to be relatively flat but still up 40 percent compared to 2019,” Sprenger said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand to travel. For our market, tourism is only about 30 percent.”

Shiann Jenkins, the newly hired general manager of the MyPlace Hotel in Bozeman, said the hotel experienced an immediate increase in occupancy in the days after the closure of Yellowstone, and she is expecting a vibrant summer of traffic through the hotel, where rates were running at about $225 a night.. 

“Here in Bozeman, Montana, there’s so much to do, there’s so much history here,” she said. “And it’s so dang beautiful that I don’t think it will affect us long term.”

Ben Turczyn, a front desk associate at the AC Hotel Downtown Bozeman, said the majority of visitors to his hotel are business travelers but noted that tourists he’s spoken to are open to changing their travel plans to adjust to the partial closure of Yellowstone. 

“I would continue to expect Bozeman to have a busy summer,” Turczyn said. His hotel was charging $588 a night for a stay on July 15-17, according to Expedia.com. He said callers have been asking about alternatives to visiting Yellowstone, including questions about Big Sky and Glacier National Park. 

“Most people, once they hear there are other places other than Yellowstone specifically,” he added, “they seem to be pretty OK with still coming to Bozeman.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated June 23 to better reflect what some downtown hotels are typically charging per night. While a search for rooms on Trip Advisor did show that a room at the Element Bozeman was over $1,500 a night for a weekend in June, McKayla Murphy, director of sales for the Element, said after this story was first published that the current price for a room on a typical summer weekend night is $599.



 

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