The Montana Department of Revenue has come out with two more packages of proposed rules, as they prepare for the start of recreational marijuana sales in January. Marijuana advocates say they’re concerned one of the provisions is going to put too many limits on who can take jobs in the industry.
The provision that has drawn the most comment could block some people from working for marijuana businesses if they have had a criminal conviction of any kind in the last three years.
“It’s very outside of the color of what we did at the Legislature, it’s very outside of the spirit and the intent of [House Bill] 701, and so it makes us wonder where this came from,” said Pepper Petersen, president and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild. Petersen was one of the leaders of the 2020 marijuana legalization campaign and lobbied on marijuana bills during this year’s state legislative session.
This spring, lawmakers passed House Bill 701, which established the current legal framework for the state’s recreational marijuana system. The bill created a requirement that any employees of marijuana businesses must get a worker permit.
As part of the application process, the law says the Department of Revenue shall ask applicants about any previous convictions. It also requires that anyone with a permit inform the department if they are convicted of a felony or cited for violating any marijuana law in Montana or another state.
The new proposed rule states "conviction, guilty plea, or plea of no contest to a criminal offense within three years of the application or renewal" could be grounds for suspending or revoking a worker’s permit. In the department’s published explanation of the rules, they say the provision is necessary as guidance for implementing HB 701.
However, Petersen argued that language could mean any criminal offense, including a misdemeanor, could lead to someone having their worker permit suspended or revoked — and therefore being unable to work for marijuana busineses. He believes that would go beyond what is in HB 701.
“We don’t want folks to think this is a bad thing or for some reason that the government’s going to be after them if they take a job in this industry,” he said. “When you put up a barrier like this, that’s kind of a big flag to say, ‘Hey, we don’t trust you, we don’t want you in our communities, we prefer you not to do this, but we’re just allowing you to.’”
A spokesperson for the Department of Revenue responded to an inquiry from MTN, saying it is not the department's goal to make any criminal conviction grounds for suspension.
The rules would give the department authority to consider aggravating and mitigating factors in determining what penalty to assess – contrasted with a guaranteed revocation if a permitted worker sells or gives marijuana to someone younger than 21.
Petersen says restorative justice was a key part of the legalization effort – including measures like the expungement of some marijuana-related convictions. He says he understands the importance of knowing when someone has illegally sold marijuana or violated a similar law in another state, but questioned the need for keeping someone from working in the industry because of unrelated offenses.
In addition to the worker permit provisions, the new proposed rules lay out specific requirements for what security measures marijuana businesses have to put in place – including a secured entrance, alarms and video cameras. They require licensees to inform the department of their hours of operation and open themselves up for inspections. They also establish procedures for when a business’s license is suspended or revoked.
In a statement to MTN, a spokesperson for the Department of Revenue said the rules process is still in its early stages.
“The department is open to feedback, as proven in past rule hearings, and encourages public comment on the rules,” the spokesperson said.
These rules packages will have a public hearing in Helena on Nov. 30. People can also submit public comment through 5 p.m. on Dec. 6, by mail to Todd Olson, Department of Revenue, Director's Office, P.O. Box 7701, Helena, Montana 59604-7701; by phone at (406) 444-7905; by fax to (406) 444-3696; or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify a response from the Montana Department of Revenue, stating that it is not their intention to make any criminal conviction grounds for suspending a worker permit.