Big Changes are Coming to Advertising Rules!
Plus: Our first guest product review has arrived.
Welcome to Montana Cannabis Weekly— a newsletter about the people and the plants that power the Montana cannabis industry. You can read all about it here, and earn yourself some Instant Karma by subscribing below!
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Hello from a beautiful, crisp morning in Missoula. This week has been full of hints of fall - the larches turning yellow, your breath visible in the morning air, a sudden reemergence of a yearning for soup - and holy shit, it feels good to be alive. After a solid month of being smothered by a noxious blanket of smoke, the sky feels big again.
This week’s newsletter - hey, what a segue - is similarly full of good tidings!
I’m really excited to share an exclusive interview with Kristan Barbour, the Administrator of the Cannabis Control Division at the Department of Revenue. As Kristan explains, the feedback given at this month’s hearing on proposed advertising rules has resulted in big revisions that should go a long way towards helping cannabis businesses thrive in Montana: in our interview, she unpacks some of those changes and walks us through what happens next.
I’m also pumped to bring you our first guest product review this week, from Missoula budtender and industry veteran Percel Pitts. Read on for his sage words on a top-notch indica-dominant hybrid, as well as some praise of one of my favorite Montana musicians, the witty songwriter Izaak Opatz!
But first, let’s talk rules.
After Compelling Testimony, Big Changes are Coming to Cannabis Advertising Rules
A couple of weeks ago, the Montana Department of Revenue (DOR) held a public hearing on their proposed rules for cannabis advertising. While the testimony offered by industry insiders was civil, it also marked a forceful repudiation of the department’s approach.
The industry’s feedback, it seems, has been heard loud and clear: DOR is now in the process of revising the rules, with a deadline of October 1. Look out for the new proposed rules in the next couple of weeks; while there won’t be an additional public hearing, there will be opportunity for public comment.
During the hearing, on August 13, more than a dozen dispensary owners, advocates and legal experts testified that the rules package assembled by DOR would’t merely hamper business, but that the department’s interpretation of House Bill 249 - a bipartisan bill that paved the way for limited cannabis advertising - differed wildly from its original intent.
“Montana’s current advertising restrictions go so far it is hard for the consumer to differentiate between licensed and unlicensed operators,” said the lobbyist Melissa Lewis, who represented the cannabis advertising platform Weedmaps during the legislative session.
Pepper Petersen, of the Montana Cannabis Guild, was even more explicit. “This was not the intent of [House Bills] 701 or 249. No one said we couldn’t identify ourselves as businesses…It’s like someone took a bucket of garbage and threw it against the wall to see what would stick,” he said. “This is a ban on advertising, not a ban on advertising marijuana products.”
Limits on outdoor signage also sparked frustration among stakeholders.
“The purpose seems to be to hide us from the public,” said Joshua Gosney, the president of Infinity Wellness.
Glen Broughton, the owner of Starrbuds, even brought a mock-up of a permissible, and utterly soulless, sign to demonstrate how excessive the restrictions would be.
“Since we can’t brand ourselves, this is what’s going to happen,” he said, of the sign. “I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on signage. I’m not going to abandon that without a fight.”
Several stakeholders also addressed the proposed ban on charitable events. Joanna Barney, representing the Montana Cannabis Industry Association, rattled off a list of more than two dozen non-profit organizations that currently receive donations from cannabis businesses; under the proposed rules, those donations may have no longer been legal.
“We are dismantling a taboo around marijuana and I don't think that this helps,” added Antonette Lininger, CEO of Sacred Sun Farms.
Fortunately for these businesses, the Department of Revenue is responding with more than lip service.
According to Kristan Barbour, the Administrator of the Cannabis Control Division big changes are being made to the rules. And they are happening fast: the deadline to finalize them is October 1.
I caught up with Barbour to hear her take on the hearing, which testimonies influenced the department’s decision to revisit the rules and what’s next for cannabis advertising in Montana.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
MCW: Thanks for taking the time to chat! How did it feel being at the hearing earlier this month?
I think DOR in particular is really trying to cultivate a respectful relationship [with the cannabis industry]. Our job is to listen to what works for the public. Sometimes when you bring a rules package forward, in theory it sounds great, but in practice you find out you’ve potentially created a disaster.
Some of the comments may have sounded adversarial, but for the most part it was respectful and there was a lot of good feedback.
We sat in the front now. We made eye contact. It was important for the public to understand we were listening. We’re not bureaucrats that are just going to give this a rubber stamp and say, Thanks for showing up, we’re going to do it anyway.
Based on the feedback, we are making major changes to that rule package.
What are some examples of arguments that were compelling to you, and will result in changes?
[Glen Broughton of Starrbuds] brought a [mock-up of the permissible outdoor signage]. That was very compelling. It was absolutely striking to see. Sometimes you get in a room and come up with a great idea, but when you see it in play you're like, Oh that’s a hot mess.
We’re planning on getting away from sign limitations.
There were a lot of good comments made about local control, too. If Bozeman or Missoula wants to [allow certain signage requirements], that’s their prerogative. I don't think it’s up to DOR to dictate what it should look like for all of the state.
There was a lot of discussion around the intent of the law, especially as it pertained to limiting advertising on marijuana, as opposed to marijuana products.
We’re recognizing that there’s a difference between promoting your business and your brand and promoting a particular product. We want to allow for the promotion of brands and business names; that’s important. What we need to limit is access to actual products and the visual aspects to make sure we’re not enticing anyone under the age of 21 to be more curious about this product.
We’re reviewing what we had originally intended in our rules, recognizing that brand recognition is very important for consumers. The more the consumer can understand what’s available to them in a regulated market, that’s positive for everyone.
Lots of folks in the industry expressed frustration with the proposed rules limiting charitable giving. What was the intent there?
That was not our intention. What we were trying to limit, candidly, was that you’d be able to sponsor a little league baseball team and put the name of a marijuana company on their shirt. We’re not allowing children’s sports to be promoted with marijuana products.
However, we’re revisiting how that came across in the rule. Our intent is not to limit these businesses from engaging in charitable donations and working in their communities.
What we’ve come up is probably not perfect, but it’s vastly better than what people saw [at the hearing].
There’s a common argument that the difference in regulation between cannabis and alcohol is absurd considering how much more dangerous alcohol has been proven to be. Is that a fair argument to you?
I think it’s a valid point. The challenge we have to be honest about is that alcohol is federally legal. There are advertising laws at the federal level that allow for different regulations. In each state, they’ve implemented [cannabis] legalization uniquely. I think that’s where there’s a little bit of disconnect. It isn’t one size fits all to compare cannabis to the alcohol industry.
We’ve had a long history of getting used to [alcohol] and that industry has found a way to evolve. I don't disagree that cannabis will have that same trajectory and it will be a lot more rapid. We’re just not quite there yet.
What are the next steps in the rule-making process?
We’re going to start responding in writing to everyone’s concerns, whether they were verbal or submitted [online].
That’s how we create a new revised rule package for advertising. It’s referred to as an amended proposed rule. Once that’s drafted we’ll share it again with the public and give an additional ten days for public comment on the new rules.
These are technically required to be effective by October 1, per House Bill 249. We’re starting to bump up against that timeline.
I think originally the rule was three or four pages, we’re down to one page. We’ve taken a large chunk of what we’d originally proposed out.
Be sure to follow Montana Cannabis Weekly for the most up-to-date news on the revised advertising rules!
Guest Review: Cherry Pie Breath
I’m so pumped to kick off a series of guest reviews in the newsletter!
In this first installment, industry veteran Percel Pitts reviews Cherry Pie Breath, a pungent indica-dominant hybrid from Trichome Valley in Missoula.
In Percel’s words:
”I love this strain. It’s coated with trichomes everywhere and gives off a sweet and funky smell: it starts off with cherry notes, then hits you hard with a pungent tone. There’s smooth smoke that creeps up on you out of nowhere, and then boom, you’re done! It’s not too heavy, but I don’t recommended it for morning smoking; it’s definitely indica-dominant.”
Percel Pitts is a cannabis grower from Las Vegas and currently a budtender at Montana Kush in Missoula. He has been working in the industry for over five years, including stints at TheGrowerCircle and NuWu, one of the largest dispensaries in Las Vegas. Find him on Instagram @blackmt420.
Izaak Opatz Spins Hilarity out of Heartache
Scuzzy, witty and warm-hearted, Izaak Opatz’ 2020 album Hot and Heavy-Handed flips the conventional breakup album formula on its head. Whether he’s getting shit-faced alone on a plane, trying to track down an elusive lover in the Tulsa phonebook or “goin’ through the Big D,” the Montana-based troubadour combines snark with a delightful mix of rock and twangy folk that worms its way into your ear as much as it pulls on your heartstrings.
That’s a wrap for today, folks. Thanks again for reading, and please feel free to share the newsletter with your friends, family and fellow connoisseurs!
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