Montana’s marijuana regulator wants to prevent individuals who’ve received a criminal conviction within the past three years from working in the industry, including for low-level cannabis possession offenses that are now legal.

Marijuana reform advocates argue this would threaten the restorative justice potential of legalizing cannabis, goes against the spirit of the legalization ballot measure approved by voters last year, as well as the bill passed by lawmakers and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Montana’s Department of Revenue (DOR) unveiled its proposed rules earlier this month with a list of circumstances that are “grounds for suspension or revocation of a worker permit.”

These include any “conviction, guilty plea, or plea of no contest to a criminal offense within three years of the application or renewal,” which includes petty cannabis offenses in Montana or any other state.

There will be a public hearing on the DOR’s proposed rules on November 30, with public comments open until December 6.

The DOR’s push to preclude anyone with a marijuana-related conviction from being employed in the legal industry would make it an outlier in the US among states that have legalized cannabis.

Social justice advocates say the historic racial and economic disparities in the enforcement of cannabis laws means people of color and those on low-incomes will be disproportionately affected, and that this will result in greater disparities in the long-run.

“Montana DOR just flushed restorative justice down the toilet with their absurd new rules, and to add insult to injury they want to make it harder to be a budtender or marijuana worker now when we are in the middle of an employment crisis,” said Pepper Peterson of the Montana Cannabis Guild.

Peterson went on to say the proposed employment rules betray the intent of the marijuana legalization bill and represents “a massive power grab by the DOR.”

The bill, signed into law in May with retail sales set to launch in January 2022, contains provisions requiring job seekers to disclose felony convictions, violations of state cannabis laws and any charges concerning the distribution of alcohol or tobacco to minors, but it makes no mention that any of these would result in exclusion from working in the legal marijuana industry.

However, the enacted marijuana legalization bill and the DOR’s proposed rules allow for an appeals process for those with a criminal conviction seeking employment in the cannabis industry.

As an initial proposal, many marijuana reform advocates think the DOR will backtrack in the face of opposition. In September, for instance, the DOR loosened its proposed rules for marijuana advertising in response to stakeholder concerns.

Rep. Katie Sullivan sits on the Legislature’s Economic Affairs Interim Committee, which oversees the DOR, and said the draft rules concerning employment appear “overbroad” and “counter to the objectives of the bill.”

“There’s a lot going into the rules that’s kind of new. We definitely have to be really careful and read everything,” she said.

Learn about Montana marijuana laws here.

state marijuana laws