County approves intent to change zoning for recreational marijuana

Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously during a special meeting on Nov. 12 to approve changes to the zoning regulations for recreational marijuana due to a recent state law change.

That starts a 30-day comment period before commissioners will take final action on the changes during a December meeting.

The meeting materials are available here.

County Commission to consider proposed zoning changes for recreational marijuana

In October, the county planning board voted unanimously to adopt changes proposed to the zoning regulations related to recreational marijuana.

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 planning board votes to recommend zoning changes for recreational marijuana

County planning recommended 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.

County considering zoning changes for recreational marijuana

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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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 during the October meeting 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.

During the Nov. 12 special commission meeting, several people suggested the 1,000 distance for marijuana businesses from schools or worship facilities, though there aren’t likely to be many schools or worship facilities in the I-2 districts.

Commissioners made no move to change the distance back to 1,000 feet.

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Stroop said that drug use is affecting young people and it impacts crime rates and the education system. She spoke in both the October planning board meeting and November commission meeting to raise concerns about limiting access for young people to marijuana.

“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 in October, “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.

During the November commission meeting, Stroop suggested the cap again to allow the county to take its time to see what the impacts of recreational marijuana will be in the county.

Stroop said “we don’t want it just floodgates open. Let’s take our time with this.”

Stroop raised concern about a dispensary in Belt but the county zoning regulations wouldn’t apply since Belt is an incorporated town with its own zoning rules, just as they do not apply in the City of Great Falls, Cascade or Neihart.

At this point, medical and recreational marijuana dispensaries are prohibited in the City of Great Falls and there’s no plan to change that.

Jeff Hindoien said that city code states that ‘[n]o use of land shall be permitted by right or conditionally permitted within the [city] that is in violation of federal …law’ and that was enacted by the commission in 2010 as a specific measure to prohibit commercial medical marijuana activities here in Great Falls. As commercial marijuana-related activities (both medical and adult-use) remain prohibited by federal law, city staff will be continuing to implement the current city code structure pending further action by the City Commission.”

Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said that there are concerns with marijuana from a public health standpoint, particularly the aspects that are being marketed toward children.

“I would just encourage you to be thoughtful and cautious in your implementation of this and take your time,” Gardner told commissioners.

Tom Moore, Great Falls Public Schools superintendent, said that commissioners can regulate recreational marijuana at a higher level in the county and that there are detrimental effects for children.

He said that several years ago when the district noticed high levels of high school dropouts, the top factors were the influence of drugs and alcohol and associated mental health issues.

Moore said that through the risk behavior survey conducted every other year, they’ve seen an increase in students self-reporting the use of marijuana.

“I’m concerned about youth in this county, in this community,” he said.

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.

Priscilla Azure said that she’s been around marijuana most of her life and has family members who use it medicinally. She said that it wasn’t fair for patients to have to go to I-2 for their marijuana and that it should be allowed in more areas of the county.

County Commissioner Don Ryan said recreational marijuana wouldn’t be a revenue generator for the county since most of the revenue has been designated for state purposes.

“I really think that the way to county is doing it with what the Legislature has done is probably the most conservative approach of all the major cities in the state,” Ryan said.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said he’s not an advocate for marijuana but had veterans talk to him about their medicinal uses and they were “adamant and persuasive,” which is why he voted to allow medical marijuana in the county but told them he’d use zoning to restrict where it’s allowed.

He said that he doesn’t want to make it completely unavailable in the county since that would push people to neighboring counties but wants to keep in controlled within the I-2 district.

Briggs said capping the number of dispensaries allowed in the county is a valid idea, but if the city were to allow it, that wouldn’t apply.

He asked county staff to research whether the county can regulate the age of those allowed on the premises for dispensaries.