County approves recreational marijuana in heavy industrial districts
Updated 10:30 a.m. Dec. 29
County Commissioners unanimously approved changes to the county zoning regulations to allow recreation marijuana in the I-2 heavy industrial areas, where medical marijuana is already allowed.
Several people spoke, asking commissioners to deny allowing recreational marijuana due to health and safety concerns, but Commissioner Joe Briggs said denying it in zoning wouldn’t stop it from coming into the county.
The zoning just determines where legal shops can operate within the county.
The changes do not affect the City of Great Falls, where marijuana dispensaries, medical and recreational, remain prohibited.
Commissioner Joe Briggs said said the I-2 zoning is the most constricted availability of land in the county and that officials allowed marijuana dispensaries in that zoning district to keep them away from schools, community centers, churches and recreational areas.
“It’s where you put the stuff you don’t want people living by,” Briggs said of the I-2 zoning district.
He said that the lack of industrial land would likely limit the number of marijuana shops in the county.
“We have done what we can do to limit them,” he said.
Briggs said he didn’t think it was practical to prohibit recreational marijuana in the county since it would come in anyway and the county might as well get the tax revenue from the sales.
The state will impose a flat 20 percent tax on recreational marijuana and local governments can send the question to the ballot for a 3 percent local option tax. Missoula, Park and Yellowstone counties have enacted such a tax.
Commissioner Don Ryan said that those in the marijuana industry are going to challenge the county for their restrictions since they want it to be more widely available in the county.
Ryan told The Electric that he wasn’t aware of any plans at the county to pursue the local option tax.
“If we got push from the public, we would probably look at it. My only fear is that too many taxes might encourage black market sales. The 20 percent might do that now, we will see. Because of the regulations and monitoring of production and sales the legal purchases are the only guarantee of ‘safe’ product that is not contaminated or laced with other harmful products,” Ryan told The Electric.
Commissioner Jim Larson said that “this was as conservative as we could get and stay within the law as proposed by the voters and the Legislature. Do we agree with the voters and the Legislature, probably not, but this is the best we could do.”
In November, commissioners voted unanimously to accept the changes, starting a 30-day comment period, during which one written comment was received in opposition to the changes, according to county planning staff.
The changes were initiated by the county planning department due to a recent state law change.
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 recommended definitional changes to reflect the changes in the law and recommended 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.
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.