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Local governments hold roundtable discussion on recreational marijuana sales

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RONAN — Representatives from local, county and tribal government met last week to discuss strategies for regulating recreational marijuana sales which are set to begin Jan. 1, 2022. Montana voters approved the sale of recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older during the 2020 election. HB 701, passed in the 2021 legislative session, places oversight with the Department of Revenue, “provides for a local-option marijuana excise tax” and a requirement for local government approval.

Polson City Manager Ed Meece opened the meeting by saying he hoped the various governments in attendance could benefit from working together in their approach to regulation. He shared some of the strategies being developed by Polson’s Marijuana Task Force, which include prohibition of use on city-owned property, regulation of transport, special business licensure, taxation and zoning requirements. 

Regarding taxation, it is being recommended that that city work with the county government to implement a 3 percent tax via ballot initiative for recreational sales made within the county. HB 701 caps the local option tax at 3 percent and further spells out that 50 percent of revenues are retained by the county while 45 percent are apportioned to cities based on population. The remaining 5 percent is retained by the Montana Department of Revenue and placed in a “marijuana state special revenue account.”

Lake County Commissioners, who were all present at the meeting, are willing to put forth a resolution to implement a 3 percent tax on recreational marijuana sales but are seeking consensus among the county’s incorporated towns and cities prior to doing so. They’ve asked for written requests from municipalities to put forth a tax initiative as well as an agreement to bear the cost of a special election in proportion to revenues that could be gained by the resolution’s passing.

Commissioner Bill Barron said he hopes that cities and counties can come together for cohesion of regulations, “So that county residents could know wherever they are, whichever city, regulations are the same.”

The issue of how many dispensaries to allow within the city has generated discussion during Polson Marijuana Task Force meetings said Meece. Rather than setting a specific number, which may be deemed as arbitrary, the task force is seeking to establish zoning and “distance buffers” that would accomplish desired limits. Proposed zoning regulations will put physical distance of 500 feet between any two dispensaries from each other, churches or schools. The idea, Meece said, isn’t to prohibit dispensaries but to prevent over saturation. Missoula, he added, has 55 marijuana dispensaries within city limits.

Ronan Mayor Kim Aipperspach said he and his city council have discussed similar concerns.

“We don’t want the saturation of larger cities,” he said. He suggested approaching licensing limitations similar to alcohol businesses. Ronan’s council has discussed a special business license fee of $1,500 for marijuana businesses “to account for public safety.” It was noted that being a cash business, the potential for increased crime exists. 

Aipperspach asked about county zoning regulations and proposed limits on marijuana licensed businesses so that dispensaries don’t end up setting up just outside of city limits when a city’s threshold for dispensaries has been met. Many agreed that approaching marijuana business zoning as a county could be beneficial.

County Commissioner Gale Decker motioned to Lake County Sheriff Don Bell, saying he’d like to hear from law enforcement about the newly proposed regulations. Though he agrees local governments should be ready for the upcoming change, Bell admits he doesn’t see any positives in the situation. “Recreational marijuana is just going to create more work for me and my deputies,” he said. Marijuana he noted, is still illegal at the federal level. 

Michael Wheeler, an attorney with CSKT, said it is his understanding that federal law enforcement agencies have de-prioritized investigation of marijuana in states that have legalized it. The tribes, he said, due to their relationship with the federal government are sensitive to the legality of marijuana at the federal level. He added that the tribes are primarily concerned with fair enforcement of the laws and are moving slowly as they decide whether or not to match the state in their approach.

Polson’s Marijuana Task Force recommended regulations, which are still in draft process, will be presented to the Polson City Commission on Oct. 18. The goal is to have new regulations in place prior to the Jan. 1 opening of recreational marijuana sales in Montana.

Ward 2 Polson Commissioner Laura Dever said she’s glad local governments are working ahead to prepare for the coming change.

Meece concluded the meeting by welcoming further collaboration between local governments.

“I just like the idea of working together on these issues,” he said. “Whether it’s short-term housing or marijuana … we’re glad to be a part of the solution.”

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