County planning board votes to recommend zoning changes for recreational marijuana

The Cascade County planning board voted unanimously to adopt changes proposed to the zoning regulations related to recreational marijuana.

The proposed changes next go to the County Commission for consideration and they’re expected to make a final decision in December, according to county planning.

The changes are the result of I-190, the Montana Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which was approved by Montana voters in November 2020. The law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022.

County considering zoning changes for recreational marijuana

The board was initially scheduled to consider the changes at a Sept, 21 meeting, but that was canceled and moved to Oct. 19 for a larger venue at the Family Living Center at Expo Park.

Six members of the public, other than The Electric, attended in person, with a handful on the Zoom call.

County planning is recommending definitional changes to reflect the changes in the law and will be recommending that it be treated like medical marijuana under the current zoning regulations. which is only permissible with a land use permit in the heavy industrial zoning district and keeping the same setback from worship and educational facilities, according to Charity Yonker, planning director.

The only change made by the planning board was to use “marijuana business” instead of “marijuana use” since that was confusing for the board members and they worried that it would be confusing to the public.

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The agenda and associated documents are available here.

County denies expansion of medical marijuana into more zoning districts

To comply with the new state laws, the county planning office began work to revise the county’s zoning regulations.

The proposed amendments only apply to the Heavy Industrial I-2 district. Currently, according to the staff report, I-2 is the only district where medical marijuana is allowed as a permitted principal use that requires a location/conformance permit, subject to requirements of the district and medical marijuana setbacks.

The setback for medical marijuana is 500 feet from schools and worship facilities. It had been 1,000 feet until the county changed it to 500 feet last year.

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Richard Leibert, planning board member, suggested making it 1,000 feet again after it was requested by Kristi Stroop of the Alliance for Youth, who spoke at the meeting about the potential negative impact to youth in the community.

The motion to change the setback to 1,000 feet failed.

Stroop said that drug use is affecting young people and it impacts crime rates and the education system.

“If you think the money you’re going to make off this is going to be enough to deal with the social issues,” she said, “you’ll continue to see homelessness, you’ll continue to see the crime go up.”

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She said the city has indicated it had no intention of changing its rules and marijuana is currently prohibited in the city limits because it’s still federally illegal. Stroop said that’s pushing dispensaries into the rural areas where there’s less law enforcement, fewer regulations and fewer eyes on their operations.

She suggested safeguards to include the 1,000 foot setback from schools and churches; restricting the potency of what can be sold in the county; and limiting the number of marijuana related businesses to 1 per 10,000 people in the county, or a maximum of 10.

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Yonker, the county planning director, said there’s between 10 and 20 in the county already as medical marijuana facilities and guessed that there were about 15, but didn’t have a concrete number at the meeting.

Stroop said access isn’t a problem, as the recent youth risk behavior surveys have indicated young people are able to get and use marijuana and related substances.

Earlier in October, the Great Falls Public Schools board reviewed results from the 2021 youth risk behavior survey that showed marijuana use dropped among high schoolers from 46 percent in 2019 to 42 percent in 2021 and, in middle schoolers, from 23 to 16 percent for the same years respectively.

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By comparison, the report showed a drop in alcohol consumption among high schoolers from 40 percent in 2019 to 33 percent in 2021. For middle schoolers, it dropped from 33 to 15 percent.

Andrea Savage, GFPS’ student mental health coordinator, said was likely due to COVID and the lack of social gatherings for students.

The report shows students are also using synthetic marijuana and pain medications, but marijuana remains the drug of choice, Savage said, as well as cigarettes and electronic vaping.

Stroop said, “you’re making profits off of addiction, just remember that. We have enough addiction in our community.”

One person spoke in support of making the changes, but asked that medical marijuana facilities be allowed in more areas of the county.

The planning board was only considering proposed changes to the zoning code related to recreational marijuana during their Oct. 19 meeting.

In November 2020, the commission voted 2-1 to deny the planning board’s recommendation from May 2019 that would have allowed medical marijuana within industrial, commercial and agricultural zoning districts, as well as the proposed Mixed-Use 20 district.