Left on their own, cities test new marijuana rules

HELENA, Mont. — Bozeman is considering a new law on licensing medical marijuana growers. Kalispell wants to ban them altogether. Columbia Falls says, come on in — we can't stop your legal business from operating.

Left largely on their own to deal with a booming medical marijuana trade increasing by thousands of users each month, Montana's cities and towns are testing different ways to regulate commercial growers. And they're all looking to each other to see if anybody's found a workable model.

Nothing's stuck yet.

"The people on the ground and local law enforcement have to have some sense of clarity. We're not getting it from Congress right now, and we're not necessarily getting it from the executive branch," said Kalispell city attorney Charlie Harball. "The floodgates were opened when the Obama administration made its decision not to enforce. Within weeks, we saw tons of money flowing in to get these (businesses) set up."

Kalispell and other cities have votes scheduled this week and next on how to deal with medical marijuana businesses. The increase in Montana's medical marijuana patients — there have been 4,800 new users in the first three months of this year, bringing the total to 12,081 — has been matched by a jump in the caregivers that provide them the cannabis.


That growth has exposed holes in the state medical marijuana law that was passed by ballot initiative in 2004, and the state Legislature is just now hearing recommendations from law enforcement, cities, schools and the medical marijuana community on how to change the law when it goes back into session in January.

Montana is different from other states in that there are no medical marijuana dispensaries. Instead, each patient is required to designate a "caregiver" who provides that patient with medical marijuana. Caregivers can be hard to track — there are about 2,800 registered in Montana, and most have just one designated patient. Only 109 have 20 or more patients.

Officials from various cities say they don't know where most of the caregivers are, how big their marijuana operations are, whether they comply with fire or safety codes or whether allowing them to operate will jeopardize their eligibility for federal grants.

"Cities are struggling to deal with it," said Alec Hansen, head of the Montana League of Cities and Towns. "The smaller towns rely on the lead of the bigger cities. They have the attorneys and the staff to do it."

Some cities have imposed temporary bans on marijuana businesses or passed restrictions on them while they pursue a permanent solution. Kalispell, Bozeman, Great Falls and Billings are among the cities that are taking up the issue over the next week.

Medical marijuana growers and providers are hoping total bans like the one up for a vote Monday in Kalispell do not become boilerplates for other communities. They say medical marijuana has been a great boon for the economy and cities instead should be looking at providing safe access for patients.

"These laws are detrimental to the growth of the community and they inhibit patients' rights to make informed decisions when it comes to their own health care," said Doug Chyatte, spokesman for the Montana Caregivers Network.

Federal law lists marijuana as an illegal drug, even though the Obama administration last year said it would not prosecute medical marijuana cases. That's part of the reason Kalispell's city leaders are voting on the ban, Harball said — they don't want to lose their federal funding.


"We do get a fair amount of our budget through federal dollars," he said. "Every time we get a loan or a grant we have to agree to comply with federal law."

It's a land-use decision that won't affect medical marijuana patients if they grow the six plants permitted under state law for their personal use, he said. Offenders would face fines, not jail time, if they are caught breaking the law.

"It's a splitting the baby type of thing. They're trying to protect the city while still allowing people to use the medical marijuana," Harball said. "I wouldn't expect Missoula and Bozeman to take the same route Kalispell does. Some of the more conservative communities may do that."

Helena already has a ban in place, thanks to a 1926 city ordinance making it illegal to license any business that is prohibited by federal, state or city law. That's good enough for the capital city, said city attorney David Nielsen.

"I have not had any discussion with the city commission that they want to do anything differently," he said.

Columbia Falls has gone the opposite route, saying that it will regulate medical marijuana businesses under existing zoning laws. A legal business should not be hindered, city manager Bill Shaw has said previously.

Great Falls' city commission meets Monday to consider three options — banning the sale or purchase of medical marijuana within city limits, approving an ordinance that sets criteria for licensing or extending its current moratorium up to a year.

City leaders got no help from its Planning Advisory Board, which considered each of the three proposals but came away without recommending any of them.


"I'll tell you, there are gaps in the law and we're on the front lines with dealing with that right now," Great Falls city attorney Jim Santoro told an interim legislative committee last week as he pleaded for state help in dealing with the matter.

Bozeman, situated in Gallatin County, home of the largest number of registered medical marijuana patients, is trying another approach. City leaders are hosting two forums where patients, caregivers and concerned community members can have their say.

They plan to use the comments from those forums in drafting a city ordinance that attempts to address building codes, fire codes, business licenses and where marijuana patients can use pot, city attorney Greg Sullivan said.

The city's website lists a variety of options, from doing nothing to an outright ban on any uses of medical marijuana.

Jim Gingery of the Montana Medical Marijuana Growers Association said Bozeman's approach is the right one.

"The city of Bozeman has actually been a model for not only Montana, but across the U.S. on how actually to approach this issue," Gingery said. "By sitting down with the stakeholders in a roundtable format, they're able to handle all views."

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