RONAN — Officials from county and city governments gathered on October 6 at the Ronan Community Center to discuss concerns and significant changes that will result from the legalization of recreational marijuana in Montana.
One thing is certain: regardless of how one feels about marijuana use, it is a topic that everyone will and is addressing. Everyone who attended the meeting agreed that it is best to anticipate and prepare for change. All are collaborating and utilizing resources to develop strategies to address the issues of recreational marijuana and its impact on citizens.
Ed Meece, Polson City Manager, led the discussion and introduced the topics of local cooperation, taxation, zoning, and thoughts and or concerns from law enforcement and community members on the subject of recreational marijuana.
“I am a big believer in small open government, which is essentially what I have done for the past 30 years,” Meece said. “I am a small-city guy who believes in the power of community and government collaboration.”
Lake County Commissioners Bill Barron, Steve Stanley, and Gale Decker; Lake County Sherriff Don Bell; Michael Wheeler from the CSKT legal administration department; Ronan Mayor Kim Aipperspach; and Polson’s marijuana task force member and owner of Alternative Relief in Polson, Barb Turner, among others, attended the meeting and shared their concerns, questions, and knowledge on the subject.
Back in the spring, Polson formed a marijuana task force to research marijuana legalization and figure out how the city would respond to the change said Meece.
The task force is made up of a diverse group of individuals, including professionals from the treatment world, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, St. Joseph Providence Health Care, local law enforcement, Polson city attorney, and others who have been conducting extensive research and developing preliminary strategies.
The City of Polson intends to complete a draft of strategies within the next week, which will be presented to the city commissioner(s) on October 18. The likely strategies, changes in strategy, and additions will be discussed.
Polson is working on a marijuana-specific business license. The task force is working on the license conditions, and consequences from obvious failures to meet any conditions that could result in license loss.
“We don’t have a business tax in town, and we’re not going to start one. We have one for alcohol and will have one for marijuana, but it’s not something we’ll add to other businesses,” said Ronan Mayor Aipperspach.
“I’d like to see us unify and develop rules that are similar in neighboring areas for ease of operation,” said Commissioner Barron.
Section 95 of House Bill 701 states that the rate of the local-option marijuana excise tax must be established by the election petition or resolution provided for in [section 96], and the rate may not exceed three percent.
It is a county-by-county decision, a citizen petition, or a confirmed resolution from the county commission. The City of Polson requests that the Lake County Commissions approve a resolution initiating a ballot, such as a ballot of all county election concerning the question of imposing a tax on the retail value of all marijuana and marijuana products sold at Adult Use Dispensary or Medical Dispensary; statutorily capped at three percent, to be conducted by a special mail ballot election in the first calendar quarter of 2022.
The City of Polson has agreed to contribute to the costs of special mail ballot elections.
If, and when, a marijuana tax is passed, 45 percent of the resulting tax revenue must be apportioned to municipalities based on the ratio of the city or town’s population to the total county population (HB 701).
The City of Polson’s current plan is to add two new ‘uses’ to the list of permissible land uses in the zoning code, such as adult-use dispensaries and marijuana manufacturing, and allowing those uses under a special use of conditional use within a specific zone, but this is still being determined. At the moment, the conversation is that the City of Polson would only allow it in commercial zones, not residential.
“The idea is not to prohibit, but to prevent saturation,” Meece said. Missoula has the most medical dispensaries per capita in the United States. There are currently 55 medical marijuana dispensaries in Missoula County.
“If we had 8 or 10, that would be saturation,” said Meece.
Setting a specific number for dispensaries is possible, but it must be supported by research and data on why one number is permissible over another. Instead, how many per 1,000 people, or something along those lines is being discussed, as well as using a distance buffer for school and churches.
“You do not want the saturation like Missoula,” said Aipperspach. “It causes more work for your police force.”
Lake County Sheriff Bell’s believes he has a perspective different than city managers, mayors, and county commissioners when it comes to recreational marijuana “It’s more problems for us, and my deputies.”
Michael Wheeler from the CSKT legal administration department said the Tribes haven’t taken any official action on marijuana. “What we’re looking at right now is fair enforcement of the law,” Wheeler said.
CSKT is talking to Elders and departments to see if they want to match Montana law. “There are objections, but I believe the overwhelming thought process is that it is here,” Wheeler said.
Because it is here, and whether it is in the best interests of tribal people, it must be addressed and examined.
Combined use license does exist for the tribes but does for off reservation dispensaries.
According to a member of the local community, there should be concern and limitations on the locations of dispensaries near schools, churches, and possibly even homeless shelters.
Perspective piece from owner of local medical dispensary:
“In this discussion, I hope everyone recognizes that these business owners are lawful and good citizens with excellent track records in the state of Montana,” Polson’s marijuana task force member and owner of Alternative Relief in Polson, Barb Turner, said. “I would also hope that existing businesses can smoothly transition into legalization, and that businesses that are already permitted to operate here do not have to reapply.”
“Even though we are marijuana business owners who have worked under strict guidelines for many years, we support regulating this law,” Turner said.
Turner also discussed home grown marijuana and its where a lot of problems arise. “In your thoughts on how you are going to regulate home grown, a main concern that a DEA agent from Colorado has and addresses is how home grown can affect bringing in black market marijuana,” Turner said.
On October 18, the Polson task force will meet to discuss recommended strategies to the city commission. The City of Polson website contains useful information about such topics, and if one is interested in the topic, the resources are available.
“I like the idea of collaborating,” Meece said. “When we’re all at the table, we’ll all benefit.”