Yellowstone County bans medical marijuana storefronts

Medical marijuana providers in Yellowstone County can no longer have storefronts and face location restrictions under a resolution adopted Tuesday. The resolution became effective immediately and applies to all unincorporated areas in Yellowstone County.

County commissioners unanimously passed the resolution after a half-hour public hearing that drew support from four people and opposition from five.

The resolution does not stop medical marijuana from being provided, Commission Chairman John Ostlund said. “I think it’s a good resolution,” he said.

Opponents didn’t see it that way.

Mort Reid, the Eastern Division president of the Montana Cannabis Industry Association and a former storefront provider, said the issue was access.

“You really don’t want to regulate this to some back-alley operation,” Reid told the commission. “It denies any and all access to the people who are in need.”

No dignity

Reid said the storefront ban takes “the dignity out of the process” for those who are sick.

Reid now uses his former storefront location on the 1200 block of Avenue C in Billings as a referendum headquarters for repealing Senate Bill 423, which was adopted this year by the Legislature and severely restricted medical marijuana availability and distribution.

Reid and three people listed only as John Doe last month sued the city of Billings seeking to overturn a July 1 emergency ordinance banning storefront operations. The suit argues that 16 storefront businesses operating at the time did not constitute an emergency and that the city used the emergency ordinance to circumvent normal procedures in adopting an ordinance.

After the commission meeting, Reid said he’d be talking to his attorney to see if there are constitutional questions with the county’s resolution.

Major provisions

The new law also gave local government authority to regulate medical marijuana in the community either by an ordinance or by resolution.

Other major provisions in the law have been struck down by a state district judge in Lewis and Clark County.

Josh Daniels, another opponent, asked commissioners to reconsider.

“Sick people go meet in a parking lot somewhere? That’s not fair. This is not fair to sick people,” he said.

But proponents said restricting access was a matter of public health and safety.

Laura Needham and Susan Smith, who helped start the organization Safe Communities, Safe Kids, backed the resolution.

Medical marijuana storefronts provide a foundation for drug abuse in the community, Needham said.

Smith told commissioners that they have a duty to protect the health and safety of those they represent.

Smith’s husband, Rep. Cary Smith, R-Billings, who served on a committee that backed the Senate bill, said the resolution fits with the bill.

“I support this resolution 100 percent,” Smith said.

Planning Director Candi Beaudry said there is no way to track the number of providers in the unincorporated areas of the county because they don’t have to get a business license.

But four providers in the unincorporated area of the county have a city business license because they do business in Billings, she said. Two providers are in Lockwood, one is in Molt and one is in Ballantine, she said.

The resolution says the commission has decided that the restrictions are necessary “to protect and preserve the public peace, health, safety and welfare.”

The regulations say there shall be no signs or calling attention to the medical marijuana provider’s business either on the premises or visible from a public road, sidewalk or right of way.

The regulation does not prohibit the advertising of a provider’s business as otherwise provided by law.

Providers also are prohibited from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, school leased property, public recreation centers or parks, churches and youth centers.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, who helped draft the resolution, called it simple.

“All we’re talking about here, and this is important, is banning storefronts,” he said.

Violations of the resolution will be handled through a civil, not criminal, process.

Also on Tuesday, the commission approved a tax break for Schnitzer Steel Billings, formerly Golden Steel and Recycling, through the county’s tax incentive program for new or expanding business.

Schnitzer, at 1100 Sixth Ave. N., invested $2 million in various projects and equipment to expand the types of materials it can accept for recycling. The company added eight full-time positions that pay between $18 and $25 an hour.

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