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Billings places 90-day moratorium on new pot businesses as it crafts more permanent regulations
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Billings places 90-day moratorium on new pot businesses as it crafts more permanent regulations

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Billings has placed a temporary hold on issuing any licenses or permissions to open new marijuana businesses for the next 90 days, meaning pot businesses will have to wait until December to start working with the city. 

The City Council approved two new ordinances Monday night that effectively placed a moratorium on new shops while staff work up new regulations for council to approve that will manage how recreational marijuana is sold in Billings starting Jan 1. 

Mayor Bill Cole referred to them as "clean up ordinances." 

Council is working to have new codes finalized and on the books — including business licensing and zoning regulations and standards — by the time the 90 days expire in mid-December. 

"You now are faced with considering new regulations for all these businesses," city attorney Gina Dahl told the City Council on Monday night.

State law breaks down the recreational marijuana industry into seven categories, from storefront sales to cultivation to distribution. All will be legal in Billings starting Jan. 1 with the exception of the storefronts. 

In November, residents will vote on whether to allow retail marijuana dispensaries to open and operate within city limits. Should voters approve, city officials want to be ready with clearly defined regulations in place. 

Pressure to act before Jan. 1 comes from a provision in state law that allows medical marijuana shops to begin selling recreational pot starting on the first day of the year if those shops are "in good standing" with the city. 

For that reason, Billings wants to ensure it has clear regulations in place before the end of the year. The city has had a mix of codes in the past that both allowed and banned dispensaries in city limits, which led to lawsuits, one of which is still ongoing.

After Jan. 1 those medical marijuana shops selling recreational pot will have 18 months to apply for and receive a recreational marijuana business license from the city if they intend to continue selling recreational pot.

Currently, the city is looking at allowing retail marijuana shops to operate only in heavy and light industrial zones and heavy commercial zones. In Billings those three zones are located primarily along the I-90 corridor, on sections of Montana Avenue and along Main Street in the Heights.

The city is also looking at what kinds of separations to put in place for retail pot shops. One option is to place recreational marijuana businesses 1,000 feet from schools, churches and youth centers. 

Along with the zoning and separations, the city may also limit the number of recreational marijuana business licenses it issues.

Legalized pot was born out of a ballot initiative approved overwhelmingly by state voters last November that was then formalized as HB 701 in the state legislature and signed into law earlier this spring by the governor.

The language in HB 701 left county and municipal governments in charge of regulating the cultivation, manufacture and sales of recreational cannabis. The law gave county governments the ability to return to voters to ask if they wanted legalized marijuana sold in their community.

Yellowstone County commissioners decided last month not to go back to voters but to simply allow state law to take effect at the start of the new year.

The law also gave cities the option of going to voters to ask them to approve various types of marijuana business, which led to the ballot question Billings residents will be voting on this fall.

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