Voters in Big Sky Country first approved legal medical cannabis in 2004, and it gained traction starting in 2009 when the Obama administration signaled it would not pursue action against dispensaries that were legal under state laws.
That only lasted two years, however, until the Montana State Legislature restricted the industry and caused more than 90 percent of patients to lose access to legal cannabis. Voters negated that with the 2016 passage of Initiative 182, which liberalized the system and led to growth.
Recreational cannabis was legalized in Montana thanks to the 2020 passage of Initiative 190. Possession and cultivation became legal on January 1, 2021, with the first legal recreational sales slated for 2022.
The 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported that 14.3 percent of adults in Montana had used marijuana in the previous month, more than 50 percent higher than 9.3 percent of adults for the U.S. as a whole.
Total medical cannabis sales increased more than 50 percent from 2018 to 2020, while the number of cardholders, dispensaries, and manufacturing licenses all grew at a slightly more modest clip between 2019 and 2021.
Jan. 2019: 157
May 2021: 220, up 40.1 percent in two years
Jan. 2019: 300
May 2021: 415, up 38.3 percent in two years
Medical cannabis cardholders
Oct. 2018: 29,080
May 2021: 40,481, up 39.2 percent in 2.5 years
Medical cannabis sales
FY2018: about $45 million
FY2020: about $70 million, up 55.6 percent in two years
While the state legislature is still tweaking the final bill, recreational cannabis is set to be taxed at a rate of 20 percent, five times that of the 4 percent tax levied on medical cannabis. The University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research forecast $217.2 million in recreational cannabis sales in Montana for 2022 increasing to $259.8 million in 2026. If the prediction comes to pass, annual tax revenues will surpass $50 million by 2026.
Montana got off to a notably fast start with hemp in 2018, when demand from a single company -- USA Biofuels -- made it the leading state for the crop's cultivation. However, USA Biofuels ultimately didn't hold up its end of the bargain, resulting in a $65 million judgment for the farmers in July 2021.
Since the halcyon days of 2019, however, the number of acres licensed for hemp cultivation in Montana has declined markedly:
2018: 22,000 -- or about 28 percent of the U.S. total
2019: 51,000 -- or almost 10 percent of the U.S. total
2020: about 11,000 -- about 2.3 percent of the U.S. total
Eric Peterson is editor of CompanyWeek and the Cannabis Manufacturing Report. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.