medical marijuana

The Billings City Council considered a zoning ordinance change Monday that will prohibit land use contrary to local, state or federal law. The change is aimed at medical marijuana storefronts inside city limits.

After emotional testimony on both sides, the Billings City Council — at 1:50 a.m. Tuesday, more than seven hours after opening its meeting Monday evening — voted 7-4 to ban medical marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

The decision clarified that land use that’s contrary to local, state or federal law will not be allowed. Another proposal, also approved 7-4, defines dispensaries and deletes unnecessary or outdated language in city code.

Voting for both measures were Mayor Tom Hanel and six council members — Dick Clark, Al Swanson, Chris Friedel, Rich McFadden, Larry Brewster and Mike Yakawich.

Opposing both measures were four council members: Brent Cromley, Angela Cimmino, Ryan Sullivan and Shaun Brown.

Proponents and opponents nearly filled council chambers, then waited more than three hours to begin delivering testimony that left some of them in tears.

Medical marijuana storefronts have been prohibited in Billings for about five years. City Attorney Brent Brooks said there are at least two dispensaries within city limits, “and there may be more” because some may not have applied for a business license.

Police Chief Rich St. John said he is not in favor of allowing dispensaries, but said “every dispensary owner and operator is not engaged in nefarious criminal activity.”

Richard Abromeit of Montana Advanced Caregivers said a February code enforcement visit resulted in no violations, and that he’d renewed his business license this year. He said he provides medical marijuana to about 460 patients in Montana, more than 100 of whom are veterans.

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said a friend in Bozeman had a hard time selling a commercial building because it shared a wall with a medical marijuana provider, and “people were not willing to put up with the smell.”

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 14 years ago, Nancy Moore said cannabis “makes my life bearable. I’m not a pothead. I’m someone with MS who needs my medicine.”

Mason Simmons, who volunteers with Safe Montana, said marijuana and other drugs “break down families. Anything that pulls your focus from the family group is devastating to the community.”

“For me, it’s medicine,” said Dustin Williams. “We’re not talking recreation. There are people who can’t get their medications, and now you’re telling them they have to go farther out of town.”

Dr. Lance Parks of Worden called medical marijuana “a charged, emotional issue.” He said he doesn’t use medical marijuana “because I don’t need it. If I did, I would get a green card.”

He advised the council to put off its decision, which the council considered briefly, then rejected.

“I’ve been in medicine a long time, and I haven’t seen anything that’s changing so fast (as medical marijuana),” Parks told the council.

“This is not about whether medical marijuana is good or bad,” said Hanel, who ordered one person evicted from council chambers for repeatedly asking to speak after the conclusion of public testimony. “What this has to do with is zoning and language regarding dispensaries. There are people that need medical marijuana desperately, and I respect that.”

Those who are helped by medical marijuana — including glaucoma and cancer patients — will now have to secure their medical marijuana outside city limits.

Other business

Earlier, the council unanimously approved a master plan for Poly Vista Park. The plan calls for, if fundraising is successful, an accessible “Miracle League” baseball field and playground for people with disabilities, along with other amenities.

Cost of all the proposed improvements, according to Michael Verseman of Land Design, which produced the master plan, is $4.5 million to $5.5 million. Landon’s Legacy Foundation and its partner, Billings Kiwanis Club, have a goal of raising $1.5 million.

“With your approval tonight, we will start fundraising tomorrow,” said Julie Thomason, Billings Kiwanis Club president. “We hope to get it constructed in 2019, and we will be behind you pushing you along to get this done.”

Marcie Smith, the mother of Landon Smith, in whose memory the baseball field with its special surface is being built, thanked the council for “thinking of these kids as normal. They are no different. They want to play, they want to be loved — and they want to be kids.”

Brewster, a parent of a special needs child who’s now 45, said it “benefitted him terrifically to participate in sports. It was a great blessing in his life.”

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City reporter for The Billings Gazette.