Montana Never Was a Coal State, But It’s Now a Legal Pot State

For years now we have heard Jon Tester and Steve Daines declare themselves “coal state senators” whenever they so willingly vote against measures to reduce or tax the use of coal and its planet-killing pollution. But as recently released data show, the state and local tax revenue and number of jobs created by Montana’s legalization of recreational and medical marijuana now outpace coal — a trend that is expected to continue.

Montanans voted overwhelmingly to approve Initiative-190 in 2020 to legalize adult recreational marijuana use. In fact, tens of thousands more Montanans supported recreational pot than voted for Senator Steve Daines, Governor Greg Gianforte or Congressman Matt Rosendale. If “bipartisan support” means anything to the politicians that continually blather about it, the vote for legalizing recreational pot indisputably garnered votes from across the political spectrum.

While medicinal marijuana has been legal in Montana since the voter approved passage of I-148 in 2004, adult recreational use only became legal in January of 2022. In a 2020 study titled “An Assessment of the Market and Tax Revenue Potential of Recreational Cannabis in Montana,”the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research predicted total sales of recreational pot would be a whopping $217 million this year, producing $43.4 million in state and local tax revenues. That number was predicted to rise to $259.8 million in sales and $52 million in tax revenues by 2026.

As reported in a recent article, the Montana Department of Revenue posted sales data showing total medicinal and recreational cannabis sales hit $72.9 million in the first three months of this year. Recreational sales outpace medicinal and with the tourist season upon us — and an expected 10 million or more visitors to the Big Sky State — those numbers are only expected to increase. It’s fair to say the sun is shining on the marijuana industry in Montana while coal continues its precipitous decline.

According to a report from the Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning, coal tax revenues last year came in at $45 million and are predicted to fall to $36 million by 2025 due to “continued decline in domestic demand.” Indeed, if one could say the future of the coal industry in Montana is black, very black.

When “The Marijuana Opportunity and Expungement Act” passed the House earlier this month, Montana’s Congressman Matt Rosendale voted against it —even though 37 states, including Montana, now have legal medicinal and/or recreational marijuana. Despite his title, apparently Rosendale doesn’t think he has to actually “represent” Montana’s voters.

So now the measure goes to the Senate and Republican Daines has already told Politico: “I oppose it.” Really Senator Daines? And why would you do that given that more Montanans voted to legalize pot than voted for you in the last election?

Democrat Jon Tester should answer the same question since, as also reported by Politico: “Sen. Jon Tester of Montana was similarly unenthusiastic about ending federal marijuana penalties. Legalization would ‘cause more problems than it solves,’ Tester said.”

Disgusting, isn’t it, how these politicians can laud themselves as representing a “coal state” and sweep the known and disastrous problems caused by coal under the rug — but are willing to happily vote against the overwhelming wishes of Montanans based solely on their personal opinions.

Montana is nowhere near a “coal state” – and never was. Given Montana’s indisputable vote to support legal pot, it’s clearly time for Daines, Tester and Rosendale to leave their phony anti-environment coal state excuses behind, admit Montana is now a “legal pot state,” and start representing their constituents’ priorities in Congress.

George Ochenski is a long time Helena resident, an environmental activist and Montana’s longest running weekly columnist.

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.