Medical marijuana repeal effort in Montana stirs economic fears

 With his electrician’s tool belt and company logo cap, Rick Schmidt looks every bit the small-business owner he is. That he often reeks of marijuana these days, well, it’s just part of the job, he said.

“I went on a service call the other day — walked in and a guy said to me, ‘What have you been smoking?” said Schmidt, 39.

For Gallatin Electric, a six-employee company founded by Schmidt’s father, Richard, as for other businesses in this corner of south-central Montana, medical marijuana has been central to surviving hard times as the state’s construction industry and the second-home market collapsed. Not the smoking of marijuana, the growing of it or even the selling of it, but the fully legal, taxable revenue being collected from the industry’s emerging class of entrepreneurs. Three of the four electricians on staff at Gallatin, Schmidt said, are there only because of the work needed to build indoor marijuana factories.

Questions about who benefits from medical marijuana are gripping Montana. In the Legislature, a Republican majority elected last fall is leading a drive to repeal the 6-year-old voter-approved statute permitting the use of marijuana for medical purposes, which opponents argue is promoting recreational use and crime.

“It is undermining the entire fabric of our state,” said House Speaker Mike Milburn, a former Air Force pilot and rancher. “It is time to take back our state and our culture and do what’s best for Montana.”

If repeal forces succeed — the state House last month voted strongly for repeal, and the Senate is now considering it — Montana would be the first to recant among the 15 states and the District of Columbia that have such laws.

In Bozeman, a college and tourist town north of Yellowstone National Park, construction jobs and tax collections dried up just as the marijuana business was blossoming. Residents and politicians say the new interconnection of economics and legal drugs would be complicated to undo.

Economic ripples extend in every direction, business people like the Schmidts say: gardening supply companies where marijuana growers are buying equipment, mainstream bakeries that are contracting to produce pot-laced pastries and even the state’s biggest utility, NorthWestern Energy, which is seeing a surge in electricity use by the new factories. Medical marijuana, measured by numbers of patients, has roughly quadrupled in Montana in the past year.

Unlike the situation in sunny California or Colorado, where medical marijuana has similarly surged, the weather in Montana means that growing the plant indoors is all but mandatory, a fact that has compounded the capital expenditures for startups and spread the economic benefits around further still. An industry group formed by marijuana growers estimates that they spend $12 million annually around the state and that 1,400 jobs were created mostly in the past year in a state of only 975,000 people.

Other workers say a major appeal of medical marijuana is that, unlike so much of Montana’s economy, including tourism, traditional agriculture and construction, there is no off-season or lean time.

“I never envisioned myself working in this,” Tara Gregorich, 29, who graduated last May from Montana State University with a degree in environmental horticultural science, said of her job growing pot. “But this is one of the few industries in Montana that is year-round.”

 via : Statesman

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