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Countdown to legalization: City of Missoula adopts pot regulations

Posted at 11:00 AM, Nov 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-30 13:00:48-05

MISSOULA — With the sale and manufacture of recreational marijuana set begin across much of Montana, the Missoula City Council on Monday finalized the basic rules and regulations it will use to guide the fledgling industry.

The regulations, now months in the making, will take effect in January when recreational sales begin in businesses already licensed to sell medical marijuana. Roughly 57 businesses are registered to do so in Missoula County, according to a city report.

Other interested retailers can apply for a state license later in 2022.

“I think this framework does a good job of balancing both recreational use approved by voters while protecting citizens and bringing predictability,” said council member Heidi West.

Among other things, the regulations restrict cultivation operations to certain districts in Missoula based upon the size of the business. Grow operations of 1,000 square feet or less can operate in most commercial areas of the city while operations larger than 2,500 square feet will be restricted to areas zoned as industrial.

The new rules also work to prevent the clustering of marijuana dispensaries in certain areas. Over the past few months, some have expressed concern that such businesses are taking over certain blocks of the city and, in effect, limiting the array of services offered in those areas.

To prevent that, a new dispensary cannot operate within 500 feet of another marijuana dispensary. Under state law, the same distance applies to the placement of a dispensary near schools and churches.

“This provides a good framework,” said West. “It includes a buffer between businesses, which maintains a diverse business environment and doesn’t allow for the concentration of cannabis businesses.”

City rules also limit the amount of glazing a dispensary can place on its storefront. Advocates of the code have said that excessive glazing — intended to prevent one from seeing inside the store — results in “dead zones” and detracts from neighborhood character.

But not all council members were in favor of the rules and several made an effort to amend the recommendations by removing the 500-foot buffer and glazing limitations.

“I don’t think it’s up to the government to dictate how transparent a storefront is,” said council member Sandra Vasecka, whose amendment failed on a 6-4 vote.

The regulations were ultimately adopted by the same margin.

As the regulations took shape over the past few months, the effort sparked a debate on if or how the city would regulate the energy consumed by growing operations. The industry is among the highest energy consumers, which runs counter to Missoula’s goals to reduce its carbon footprint.

The Missoula Consolidated Planning Board last month voted to limit grow operations to 36 watts per square foot. Those rules were proposed for Title 20 in the city’s municipal code alongside other regulations guiding the pot industry.

But staff in the planning department suggested Title 20 wasn’t the right place to regulate energy consumption, largely because it would only affect new businesses, not existing businesses. Rather, city planners recommended energy efforts be placed in Title 5, which pertains to business licensing.

The City Council agreed Monday and directed planning staff to begin work to amend city code regarding energy consumption for marijuana businesses. Once in effect, a marijuana business will have to comply with the energy rules in order to receive or renew a license.