BILLINGS — Recreational marijuana survived a test of prohibition in Yellowstone County after a ballot initiative trying to outlaw it failed.
And the core support for pot in this election came from a surprising place, according to an MTN News analysis of precinct data: the city of Billings, which had voted to outlaw recreational sales within city limits just six months ago.
Voters countywide have weighed in on the legality of recreational marijuana three times in the last two years and the results keep flip-flopping, keeping dispensaries trying to do business on their toes.
Most recently on Tuesday, Yellowstone County voters overturned a proposal from county commissioners to ban recreational marijuana sales, with 58% of voters turning it down.
This was a reversal from November 2021, when voters in Billings approved a ballot measure by 55 percent that prohibited recreational dispensaries from operating within city limits. And that was a shift from 2020, when Yellowstone County voters narrowly voted yes on I-190, the ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana statewide.
An MTN analysis of the voting data for the June 5 Yellowstone County vote from the Montana Secretary of State's office shows why the shift came as a surprise.
Looking at precinct-by-precinct results in Tuesday's Yellowstone County race, the strongest votes against the initiative all came from voters in Billings city limits. Out of the 22 precincts that make up the city of Billings, 21 of them voted against outlawing recreational sales and operations.
The only precinct to vote in the ballot's favor was determined by eight votes.
In other words, voters in Billings came out against pot in the city last November, and they turned around and became the driving force to make recreational sales legal in unincorporated parts of Yellowstone County just six months later.
Proponents of recreational marijuana said they were happy with the most recent results.
“We wanted to make sure that it would actually stay in and then we could expand our store, expand to some new stores, and grow our business. But it was just waiting until this moment right now," said David McMahon, assistant manager of Lockwood-based dispensary Lighthouse Organics.
In 12 years of business, McMahon says they've seen their share of changes to the budding industry.
“We’ve been through all the ups and downs. We’ve been medical right as it started way back when and we’ve gone through all the trials and tribulations up to the time where we finally have an uncapped market, we’re finally recreational free," McMahon said.
What worried dispensaries- and motivated supporters of the county ballot initiative- was the city's vote last fall.
"The state of Montana, the regular silent majority does not want marijuana to affect their families. They've had enough of it," says Steve Zabawa, director of SafeMontana, an organization working to outlaw recreational marijuana in Montana.
Montana voters legalized recreational marijuana use, sales and operations through a ballot initiative in the 2020 general election.
The Montana Legislature, tasked with writing the parameters of the new law, created a loophole for individual counties and municipalities to opt out of recreational sales and dispensaries.
It's that loophole, Zabawa says, that's helping the group get anti-pot initiatives in front of voters, town-by-town, county-by-county.
"We're continuing to work hard with the legislators and the governor to repeal marijuana out of the whole state," Zabawa said.
Zabawa says 26 Montana counties have already prohibited recreational marijuana dispensaries from operating within their jurisdictions.
Granite County joined that list with the passage of a ballot initiative in Tuesday's elections.
But the results of Yellowstone County's vote surprised Zabawa.
"We took it on the chin and we lost here, which is disappointing to say the list and confusing on top of that. We expected to win."
Zabawa chocked it up to confusing ballot language, but McMahon says voters realize the financial impact recreational marijuana sales have on the local economy.
"I'm glad it stayed," McMahon said. "All of these new jobs and all of this new money that can actually help the state can stay within the state that voted to legalize it. So I'm just happy that it's over."
But when asked if SafeMontana's effort to overturn recreational marijuana in Yellowstone County is over, Zabawa says absolutely not.
"This is a knock-down, drag out, long-term fight," Zabawa said.