Discover more from Big Sky Chat House
Did the MT weed industry win in '23? Pepper Petersen weighs in
Plus: Bluest brings the synth-driven joy on "Practical Magic"
Welcome to Big Sky Chat House— a newsletter about movers and shakers in Montana.
If you found this email in your Promotions folder, please move it to your Primary inbox. That will make it easier to find down the road, and teach Gmail to send it to other subscribers’ Primary inboxes as well. Thanks!
Howdy, all—I hope you’re savoring these mild, legislature-less spring days.
Before we jump into today’s newsletter, some news:
In the past few weeks, some of you have kindly reached out to me about paid subscriptions for Big Sky Chat House. Thank you!!! It really means a ton.
To that end, I am pumped to now offer the option of a paid subscription to BSCH.
Let me be clear: Big Sky Chat House will remain fully accessible and free for all to read. That being said, your support will go a long ways towards ensuring that I can keep putting the newsletter together in the absence of a paywall.
** Beyond the karma points that come with becoming a paid subscriber, I plan to offer readers who go paid priority access to a series of live-audience installations of the newsletter, kicking off later this year. More on that stat. **
If you would like to support Big Sky Chat House, you can do so at the link below!
Want to help support BSCH without paying for it? Help spread the word by sharing it with your friends and fellow fans of Montana!
Onwards, and thank you for being here!
Montana Song of the Week
Bluest - “Practical Magic”
Hats off to the Missoula five-piece Bluest on their brand-new record Cold Sweat (out now on Anything Bagel Records)! Featuring some of the sharpest indie-rock tunes in town, the album coalesces around the commanding and elastic voice of frontwoman Noelle Huser, who brings to mind artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval and Madeline Kenney.
On “Practical Magic,” the album’s most muscular song and arguably its catchiest, Bluest puts its crunchy guitars on the back burner in favor of stately and propulsive synths and a wholly unexpected saxophone.
At face value, the “magic” in question appears to be of the romantic variety. Yet Huser situates that love in the context of music—the song finds her dancing through an empty studio on her lover’s birthday and joyfully writing a song about them—in a way that blurs the line between her love of another person and that of music itself, creating her own brand of magic along the way.
Pepper Petersen sounds off on GOP Reefer Madness, new weed policies in Montana and where the industry is headed next
Although Montana’s nascent adult-use marijuana industry has begun to get its sea legs, the rules and regulations for the program continue to shift under businesses’ and consumers’ feet, creating complication and confusion.
During the 2023 Legislature, lawmakers passed a series of bills that—if signed into law by Governor Gianforte—will have large impacts on how the industry operates and the degree to which marijuana businesses can thrive in Montana. Some of those bills are nuanced, while others are downright perplexing. An extension on the moratorium on new businesses, for instance, makes sense at face value, but exponentially higher licensing fees and a potential crackdown on doctors who certify medical patients are harder to digest.
In this interview, we hear from one of the most in-the-know players in the Montana cannabis industry about the impact of these bills and the political dynamics that shaped them.
Originally from Tennessee (and still boasting the rich accent of his birthplace), Pepper Petersen played a major role in writing Montana’s adult-use legalization initiative, I-190, and subsequently led the campaign to get the measure over the finish line. He now serves as the President and CEO of the Montana Cannabis Guild, which lobbies for the state industry. According to Petersen, 35 weed businesses have joined the Guild, as well as 15 ancillary businesses. He also works as the manager of a marijuana dispensary, Cannabis Corner Helena.
Read along as Petersen—clearly no stranger to unabashed shit-talking—offers his candid take on the session, the bills and the lawmakers themselves.
Max: What were the Cannabis Guild’s priorities going into the 2023 Legislature?
Pepper Petersen: Priority number one was to beat back any repeal effort, ‘cause we always know that it's coming. And lemme tell you, if [Senator Keith] Regier had been the President of the Senate versus Ellsworth, I think we'd be sitting in a repeal right now.
Our number two priority was passing House Bill 128 with the extension of the moratorium.
What's the value in extending the moratorium?
It gives these businesses that are all self-financed time to build themselves up. The move from medical marijuana to recreational marijuana took every resource these people had, you know? After a year and a half these folks can kind of have their feet under 'em again, and now they can start making their businesses secure rather than just present.
When you talk about why we need another two years, it’s because if the big boys come in with their lawyers and their money, they're not gonna have conversations with city councils [regarding zoning]. They're just gonna come in and do what they want and then pay for the lawyers to defend their efforts.
HB 903, which the legislature passed this session, drastically increases license renewal fees based on how many retail locations a business operates. Do you think it will have a significant impact?
This is gonna have a substantial impact on these small businesses.
When we talk about these dispensary fees, there's only a few folks that are like, “This is gonna put me out of business.” But it's got a chilling effect on the way they operate in Montana. And if a legislator thinks that a million bucks is gonna stop these large out-of-state companies from putting up thirty dispensaries, I think they're sorely mistaken.
There was no discussion about this additional fee at all for the public to participate in during the legislature. This is an amendment that was added at the last minute.
They didn't consult us. I talked to [the bill sponsor, GOP Rep. Mike] Hopkins about it. He said, “Oh, I meant to make [the fee start to increase] after four dispensaries.” That would've been much more reasonable for our small businesses.
It's very interesting to watch people make policy that's incomplete. It's like, “Oh, we'll fix that later.” And then tomorrow never comes.
The legislature is like, “Well, we're gonna pass a bill, but we've also gotta pass a different bill to fix it.” Can you guys not write a piece of complete legislation? With 3,000 attempts, you'd think these guys would be experts at proposing legislation. But sadly, that is not the case.
HB 903 also allows the state board of medical examiners to conduct a review of any doctor who certifies more than 39 patients for medical marijuana in a given year. What’s going on there?
If you're a regular physician, especially if you’re a VA physician, you won't approve a medical marijuana [prescription]. So, no shit there's a guy that's got 3,000 of 'em wrapped up, because he's willing to take that chance.
[Per language in HB 903], the doctors have to pay for that review. I think that's unconstitutional. They can't make a doctor pay for the review.
There's always been a lot of angst amongst Republicans about the ease of approval for medical marijuana cards.
We saw that at the 2021 Legislature [via then-Rep. Matt Regier’s amendment to HB 640]. They want that tax money, right? And so they're looking to eliminate medical marijuana as much as possible. Last session they tried to say that you had to have a chronic pain specialist in order to get a chronic pain designation [for medical marijuana].
These restrictions were meant to cripple and destroy medical marijuana so that these guys could just reap taxes off sick people. Veterans with PTSD and sick people are the ones that are gonna suffer from this.
It's all espoused as, “We're protecting the system.” That's bullshit. I mean, just straight up, they're not protecting anything.
There's this neurosis with the legislature, that everything they do is some kind of necessary sideboard. It's bullshit Reefer Madness 90% of the time. But that’s how they present everything, dishonestly. It’s as if there's some sort of ongoing marijuana crisis in Montana.
[For example], we wanted the two year moratorium because these small businesses are going to get wiped out if they don't have their feet under 'em when the competition opens up. And so that's our motivation.
Whereas with the Republican legislature, it's like, “We gotta limit the number of marijuana businesses in Montana, because we wanna stick it to the potheads [as if] there's this ongoing crisis.”
I don't know what universe you live in, but there's no crisis. The crisis is that these people don't like marijuana and now they have to look at it. Oh God, no. That's the crisis they're experiencing.
Somebody else's freedom is hurting their feelings.
That sounds like the theme of the session.
That is the theme of this legislative session: your freedoms hurt my feelings.
Lemme tell you, if you tell the legislators that something will result in less dispensaries, they'll do anything. If you say, “Hey, if we allow drag shows at public schools, it's gonna reduce the number of dispensaries,” they may sign on to that.
It feels like there’s a strange political dynamic here with House Bill 128 and House Bill 903. The moratorium got extended (via HB 128) and some existing medical businesses that had been blocked from selling rec got a green light to start doing so (via HB 903).
But now we’re also looking at these fee hikes and the weird policing of doctors (also via HB 903). Was there a lot of horse trading going on?
Yeah. That's the way that we saw it presented at the legislature. It was, “We'll give you these [rec licenses] that you've been asking for but we're gonna also add these fees on and these restrictions for medical marijuana while we're at it.”
There was a question of whether there'd be enough support in the legislature for HB 128—which included the moratorium extension—if House Bill 903 did not go through, because the Democrats were holding House Bill 128 kind of hostage at some points; they were negotiating for those medical marijuana licensees who wanted to be included in the moratorium’s recreational licensees.
And so there was this question of, “If I don't accept these new fees, is the moratorium not gonna be enacted?” [Businesses] would rather have the moratorium enacted than be concerned about the fees.
I think it's just straight economics. If the licensing is opened up to anybody, there's gonna be a lot more competition and it's likely to cut into businesses’ bottom line more so than the fees on, say, three dispensaries, which most [have].
Switching gears, I’ve already seen a couple of shops in Missoula close down. Do you think that's a trend that's going to continue in the next year or two?
Yeah. Ultimately there are too many dispensaries. The fact is, the legislature doesn't need to enact new policies to limit the number of dispensaries. These businesses are gonna begin to consolidate and/or fail.
But professionalization of this industry is gonna cause a lot of these businesses to go under, ‘cause it's not fun [anymore].
It's fun to grow weed and sell weed. It's not fun to fill out employee tax information or negotiate your lease terms with a corporation in Chicago. And so I think a lot of the fun in the marijuana business is gone. And so if any of those people have not evolved from growers to essentially being CEOs, they're just moving on to something else.
Did the Cannabis Guild support the ban on Delta-8 and other synthetic products in HB 948?
We pushed for that heavily. These folks have the word “dispensary” and a big marijuana leaf on the front of their building. And they're not licensed, they're not tested.
We spend a lot of money making sure [our] products are clean. But stuff shows up on the shelf somewhere, and then there's a story in the paper about how kids overdosed on marijuana products, and you come to find out they bought it at a gas station. Who are they gonna come to when the legislature's in town? They're pointing the finger at us.
Hold on, guys. We're at such risk of losing our license for anything related to that. I challenge you to find those instances where licensed dispensaries sold to underage people. I don't believe they exist.
Lastly, do you think the cannabis industry won this session?
We have such bad PTSD about previous legislative sessions and DEA raids that anytime a repeal doesn't happen, we feel like we won.
So we beat back the repeal again. Now we're just tweaking [the 2021 framework bill] House Bill 701.
I know everybody else feels like there was such a sea change, but I'm still fighting very similar fights that I was fighting in 2020 on the campaign. I go into these small communities and I work on local zoning issues and I hear from county commissioners that have an interest in banning marijuana, and I deal with all these legislators who are Reefer Madness crazy, who would absolutely put us out of business without a care for the $50 million in tax revenue that we've brought in in a second.
Half of these legislators from the extreme conservative side, you know, they can't say cannabis without somehow cross-referencing fentanyl. Where the hell are you people getting this from? There's just this level of insanity that exists, beyond any reasonable suspicion. They're just unreasonably pissed off all the time that dispensaries exist.
And so, you know, long story short, did marijuana win in the legislature? We feel like we're continuing the victories of 2020 and that it's been an ongoing campaign.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One more thing…
I spoke to the Department of Revenue’s Kristan Barbour (and, whoddaya know, Pepper Petersen) for a story in Montana Free Press about the aforementioned licenses fee hikes, and how much some of the big players in the state could end up paying.
Thanks so much for being here. We’ll see you next week! In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.
Big Sky Chat House is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.