City votes to send marijuana question to the November ballot

City Commissioners voted 4-1 during their Aug. 2 meeting to send the question of legalizing marijuana activities within the city limits to the November ballot.

Commissioner Eric Hinnebauch voted against the action.

All land uses for marijuana, such as sales, cultivation, testing and other activities are currently prohibited in the city’s zoning code since the code prohibits any land uses that are prohibited by federal law.

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The prohibition is in the city land use code and does not address the use or possession of marijuana by individuals. Those issues are covered under state law.

The question on the ballot will ask voters if they want to keep that prohibition or not. So a yes vote is to keep marijuana activities prohibited, whereas a no vote would remove the prohibition and allow the sale, cultivation, manufacturing and testing in certain zoning districts.

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The question to voters on the November ballot, as proposed, would be:

The proposed amendment that would go to the voters is:

  • “17.4.070 – Relationship of this title to other regulations. In addition to meeting the regulations contained in this title, development shall comply with all applicable regulations of federal and state agencies. In all cases, the strictest of the applicable provisions shall apply. No use of land shall be permitted by right or conditionally permitted within the incorporated city limits that is in violation of federal, state or local law. This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, any use of land for the marijuana business categories otherwise authorized by Mont. Code Ann. Title 16, Chapter 12, Parts 1 through 5 and Admin. R. Mont. § § 42.39.401 et seq.”
  • “ – Prohibited land uses. No use of land shall be permitted by right or conditionally permitted within the City of Great Falls that is in violation of federal, state or local law. This prohibition includes, but is not limited to, any use of land for the marijuana business categories otherwise authorized by Mont. Code Ann. Title 16, Chapter 12, Parts 1 through 5 and Admin. R. Mont. § § 42.39.401 et seq.”

City Manager Greg Doyon said they have not budgeted any funds for a specific education campaign related to the marijuana question for voters.

Locals petitioning to send marijuana question to November county ballot

He said that the city will do what they’ve done with other ballot questions and present the information to the public at neighborhood councils and other public meetings and through media and city communications.

Julie Bass, a local resident working on a petition to send a similar question to the ballot in the county, said that their in favor of the city’s ballot question.

She said they’re struggling to collect signatures for their petition.

They’ll have to collect about 8,000 valid signatures to get the question on the ballot for whether marijuana businesses should be allowed in the county jurisdiction.

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Petitioners dropped off the first batch on July 22. That included six petitions. Of those, the elections office processed four and their were 277 signatures accepted, according to the elections office.

For the other two, the elections office had to contact the petition gathered since they didn’t fill out the unsworn declaration correctly, according to the elections office. As of July 27, that form had not been corrected and returned so the elections office cannot yet process those signatures.

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Beth Morrison of Alliance for Youth said that they support sending the question to voters and that the marijuana industry is also contesting rules about advertising and free samples.

“This is an industry that is many, many steps ahead of us,” Morrison said. “I just know if we open the door a little bit, you’re never going to be able to put the toothpaste back into the tube.”

During their work session, staff presented their proposed regulatory framework should voters opt to allow marijuana activities in the city limits.

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City Commissioner Joe McKenney asked if commissioners could take a stand on the issue.

City Attorney Jeff Hindoien said they could as long as they aren’t using public resources they can do what they want, but they are sending the question to voters to make a decision.

He said that as commissioners, if they had a strong preference, they could enact the rules themselves.

The whole purpose of a voter referendum, Hindoien said, is to let the citizens have their say.

McKenney said he believes local government should protect private property rights but there’s also zoning rules and it’s a balancing act.

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He said, “in my opinion, marijuana retail sales are no different than any other retail sales,” except that it’s a controlled product.

McKenney said that the will of the voters is important but that when it comes to marijuana sales, they should treat it the same as off-premise alcohol sales.

The city is currently facing a lawsuit over refusing to process a safety inspection certificate for a person wanting to open a marijuana dispensary in the city. Since the code doesn’t currently allow marijuana dispensaries, staff didn’t process the application and did not take the fee from the applicant, Dale Yatsko.

City developing rules for marijuana should voters opt to allow it in city limits

A hearing is scheduled in that case next week.

That lawsuit asks a judge to declare that the city can’t prevent marijuana activities. The city argues that as a chartered local government with self-governing powers, they can set their own rules that are more stringent than state laws.

Hindoien said the lawsuit doesn’t challenge the city’s plan to send the question to the ballot.

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If the voters choose to keep the prohibition on marijuana in the city, it won’t matter if the federal government legalizes marijuana, Hindoien said.

Hinnebauch said he agreed with McKenney that marijuana retail should be treated like alcohol sales.

He said it should be allowed in any commercial zoning district.

Commissioners asked about creating their own licensing system for marijuana businesses or limiting the number that could operate in the city.

There are options for those, staff said, but they recommended keeping it simple.

County attorney holds that petition required to send marijuana question to ballot

Hindoien said those questions were getting them further away from simplicity.

City Manager Greg Doyon said that “keeping it simple is a lot easier than where I think you might want to go with this.”

Doyon said “obtaining this drug should not be made easy to anyone.”

He said he understands the ballot initiative, but also considers the information they’re receiving from local law enforcement and the agents in the state from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

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Doyon said it sounds appealing to get tax revenue from marijuana sales, but “I don’t believe that for a second that the city will ever generate the revenue to offset the impact of that drug.”

Doyon said he doesn’t believe that marijuana is like other retail establishments.

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“You really want to be thoughtful about it,” he said, when the municipal court judge is telling them that there’s already a spike in minors in possession of marijuana.

The city’s proposed regulatory framework will go to the planning board on Aug. 9 and to the city commission for a first reading on Aug. 16.

The current schedule has them holding a public hearing on the proposal and voting on Sept. 6.