Sudden growth in medical-marijuana businesses has created alarm in Billings and other Montana cities, but local governments have few legal options. However, the Billings City Council can and should revise its zoning ordinance to recognize citizen concerns about marijuana businesses near schools, churches and other places where children gather.
After getting an earful on April 26 from parents protesting a medical-marijuana shop opening on Grand Avenue near Will James Middle School, the City Council asked its medical-marijuana committee to make a recommendation on instituting an emergency six-month moratorium on licensing additional marijuana businesses. That committee met Thursday and voted unanimously to recommend such a moratorium and further recommended that it apply retroactively to businesses within 1,000 feet of schools.
Unfortunately, there may be little the council can do about the Will James area business or another that has been operating in the vicinity of Senior High School. State law doesn’t usually allow zoning changes to apply retroactively.
The standing-room-only crowd Thursday voiced opinions that ran the gamut from defending marijuana as good medicine to wanting all medical marijuana businesses out of Montana. But most who spoke said medical-marijuana dispensaries should be prohibited near schools. As of last week, 70 city business licenses had been issued for medical marijuana “caregivers” who grow and supply the drug to individuals who have obtained medical-marijuana cards under state law.
Several speakers, including Billings school board chairman Malcolm Goodrich, suggested that medical-marijuana businesses be subject to the same limits as bars and casinos, which can’t be located within 1,000 feet of the property line of a school or church. Some medical-marijuana supporters agreed with that idea.
The Montana Medical Marijuana Act, approved by voters in November 2004, had been used by fewer than 2,000 patients as of a year ago, but the patient count grew to 12,081 by the end of March 2010, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Yellowstone County has 981 of those patients. Not coincidentally, some medical-marijuana businesses recently have held clinics in Billings and other cities where a doctor could immediately provide a medical-marijuana recommendation, allowing the individual to apply for a card to legally possess up to an ounce of the dried weed and six live plants.
The law was intended to provide access to medical marijuana as a mercy for people with severe medical problems — not to legalize marijuana for everybody who asks. Those who are exploiting weaknesses in the law are generating a backlash that may imperil the medicinal access that voters supported six years ago.
The 2011 Legislature will need to address questions and problems precipitated by the state law.
Meanwhile, an emergency moratorium will give the city time to develop appropriate, permanent restrictions in the zoning code. The city should then use the tools it has to separate marijuana operations from places where children study.