The city of Billings will continue to use its zoning and business license regulatory authority to keep medical marijuana dispensaries outside city limits.
City Attorney Brent Brooks briefed the city council late Monday night during the council’s 5 ½-hour work session on what a staff committee, which included planners and lawyers, has learned about regulating medical marijuana.
The city prohibits storefronts from selling medical marijuana to cardholders who can use it legally and withholds business licenses to potential medical marijuana businesses.
It does not, and cannot, prohibit personal use of medical marijuana by a cardholder, Brooks said. While they can’t purchase it legally in Billings, medical marijuana cardholders are allowed to cultivate it themselves or purchase it outside Billings.
“What we are talking about is commercial establishments engaged in the medical marijuana business,” Brooks said.
In November 2016, Montana voters approved Citizen Initiative I-182, which repealed the three-patient limit for providers and will, as of June 30, allow providers to hire employees to cultivate, dispense and transport medical marijuana.
Brooks said the committee — which included City Administrator Tina Volek; Planning Director Wyeth Friday; Zoning Coordinator Nicole Cromwell; Joanne Rindahl, who handles business licenses for the city; and Brooks and Assistant City Attorney Gina Dahl — reviewed the city’s medical marijuana ordinances as part of an ongoing effort to amend or repeal outdated ordinances.
According to Brooks, the Montana Medical Marijuana Act “expressly allows the City to regulate the cultivation, manufacture and the use of marijuana to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the City of Billings.”
There’s no Montana precedent on the issue, he said, and the Montana Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue directly.
Other Montana cities employ a variety of approaches to regulate the commercial availability of medical marijuana. Missoula allows dispensaries as a professional office land use. Bozeman has capped the limit at 20 dispensaries. Butte allows medical marijuana businesses, but only in commercial zones.
Great Falls and Kalispell prohibit medical marijuana through land use and zoning regulations. Helena won’t issue business licenses for any activity that violates federal law.
Brooks said Billings can regulate the businesses however it chooses, and council members by consensus opted for something akin to the Great Falls, Kalispell and Helena approaches.
“States that tax marijuana make a decent amount of money off it,” said Councilman Shaun Brown. “But if I can’t tax it, I don’t want to support it.”
Taxing the sale of marijuana “may be compelling, but without state authority, you cannot tax the gross revenues on marijuana,” Brooks said. “State statute says it’s a privilege to have medical marijuana, not a right.”