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Medical Marijuana Ordinance Tops Great Falls City Commission Agenda


Nug of the Month: Aug 2008
Opinions are mixed about regulating medical marijuana in Great Falls.

City government hearings on the issue drew packed houses, and Tuesday night is expected to be no exception.

Great Falls city commissioners will discuss medical marijuana at their regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

At a city agenda-setting meeting Wednesday, Mayor Michael Winters suggested that the logical move would be to delay city action until state government improves its medical marijuana program.

"Let the Legislature plug the holes," Winters said.

Voters statewide approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2004, but the number of marijuana patients approved by a state agency mushroomed in the last year from 2,000 to more than 12,000 patients. A physician must approve a patient's request to legally use marijuana to fight chronic pain or other maladies.

Montana officials were startled by the heavier use of medical marijuana in the state, prompting calls for action by the 2011 Legislature. In the meantime, cities across the state have struggled to decide whether they should regulate medical marijuana businesses within city limits, ban it entirely or use moratoriums to delay a decision.

Helena and Kalispell banned marijuana businesses outright, noting that the use and sale of the drug remain illegal under federal law.

The Obama administration previously announced that enforcing federal laws against marijuana is not a high priority.

Meanwhile, school officials, law enforcement officers and other people have expressed various concerns about a dramatic increase in marijuana use. Additionally, some businesses are not anxious to have marijuana businesses near them.

It's a big, complex emotional exercise, and the City Commission faces tough decisions in the next few weeks.

Planning staff gave commissioners three options: ban marijuana businesses within city limits, extend a moratorium through February 2011 to give the Legislature time to act or approve an ordinance that specifies zoning categories where marijuana shops can locate.

Most medical marijuana advocates favor the latter option, noting Montana voters favored medical marijuana by a wide margin.

Big Bear

Caregivers and patients have suggested that the city focus on zoning, rather than consider a wide variety of issues best left to legislators and state government.

"Just tell me where I can do my business and what's acceptable," said Joy Spencer, a Great Falls medical marijuana caregiver. Spencer urged the city not to delay action for months, noting commissioners could fine-tune a medical marijuana ordinance later.

"Nobody's going to come up with a perfect law the first time," she said Friday.

Great Falls Police and the fire department have asked the city to extend its existing moratorium for up to one year to allow some issues and concerns to be researched.

Al Recke, coordinator of the Cascade County DUI Task Force, said his group is concerned about increased marijuana use leading to impaired driving. He said legislators should consider defining what level of THC – the main active chemical in marijuana – in the blood would be considered impairment, similar to a blood-alcohol level.

For now, a blood test can reveal whether a driver has any THC in his or her bloodstream, which can be considered as contributing to an accident, Recke said.

He advised anyone using medical marijuana not to drive after using it.

"Any impairment is putting people at risk," he said.

Recke suggests that the City Commission delay action until the Legislature meets in January.

City commissioners, who have offered mixed views on the issue, may act Tuesday on three different ordinances reflecting the three options – ban medical marijuana businesses, extend the moratorium or create a new ordinance allowing the business and explaining where they can locate.

A final vote would take place at the June 1 meeting.

City Attorney James Santoro said commissioners could approve one of the three options on first reading, or could even opt to approve more than one.

Even if commissioners decide to approve an ordinance allowing the medical marijuana businesses, some of the details are expected to be debated.

For example, commissioners will consider potential license fees for marijuana businesses of $1,500 for an initial license and $500 for a renewal. Of course, if commissioners ban marijuana businesses in the city limits, the fee schedule would not be needed.

The city also has proposed that marijuana growers and dispensaries must post on the premises a special business license for growing or dispensing marijuana. At the same time, the city proposed to prohibit marijuana businesses from posting any signs containing the words "marijuana" or "cannabis" or showing any images of marijuana plants.

Caregivers such as Spencer prefer to be low-key.

"It doesn't have to be an in-your-face type business," she said.

The proposed city ordinance also contains detailed requirements for marijuana businesses such as security cameras, alarm systems and exterior lighting. It also requires ventilation systems so that the odor of marijuana could not be detected outside a building or in adjacent buildings.

NewsHawk: Ganjarden: 420 MAGAZINE
Source: Great Falls Tribune
Contact: Great Falls Tribune
Copyright: 2010 Great Falls Tribune
Website: Medical marijuana ordinance tops Great Falls City Commission agenda
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