A Senate committee Thursday tried to hash out whether to approve a bill that would require cannabis growers to keep their grow operations indoors and reserve the outdoors for hemp farmers.
Sen. Tom Jacobson, a Great Falls Democrat, told the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee his Senate Bill 209 would prevent cross-pollination from happening between hemp, which has nearly no THC, and cannabis. The majority of marijuana producers already grow indoors because it allows them to grow year-round, Jacobson said, while farmers can use hemp to diversify their crops.
Opponents to the bill came primarily from the medical marijuana industry — who will have a one-year head start on the upcoming recreational market — who said the bill would uproot their investment into outdoor facilities. Another opponent said cross-pollination only puts the marijuana producers at risk, as they only use female plants, therefore hemp crops can't be cross-pollinated. Voters legalized recreational cannabis last fall.
Morgan Elliot of IND Hemp in Fort Benton said the cross-pollination charge by the opponent is true, but added the diversification opportunities to farmers is much needed in a time when traditional crop prices have struggled. Wheat and barley can get a farmer $10 to $15 an acre, Elliott said, while hemp has the potential to produce $250 to $300 an acre.
"We all know that wheat and barley and the other crops that are typical to Montana right now are struggling to produce a good crop for our growers," Elliott said. "So the revenue opportunity for a typical Montana farmer is really bringing a new opportunity and industrial hemp really has a place to stay in Montana."
Jason Smith, a co-owner at Montana Advanced Caregivers, contended Montana's medical marijuana program, established in 2004, has been in place longer than the state's hemp program, and shouldn't be wrangled around in favor of hemp. He invested in his business 13 years ago with indoor and outdoor grow operations. His 10,000 square-foot facility in the medical market produces $40,000 in tax revenue for the state, Smith said. In the upcoming recreational market, where the product will be taxed at 20%, the same facility could create $200,000 in revenue for the state, he added.
"Marijuana is the market, that's what's going to make the money," he said. "I just don't understand how economics is not an issue, if that's what this is all about."
The proposal got the support of the Department of Agriculture's Cort Jensen, who said the bill would help law enforcement spot the difference between pot and hemp, and would help keep kids from wandering into hemp fields looking for buzz.
"The department really thinks this is necessary," Jensen said.