HELENA – Helena leaders took input from the public on Wednesday about the possibility of allowing medical marijuana operations within city limits.
The Helena Zoning Commission hosted a “community conversation” at the Helena Civic Center, asking people what, if any, additional regulations should be put on dispensaries and grow operations in the city.
Wednesday’s event was just an informal meeting, but it is the first step in a full review of whether Helena should update its zoning and licensing rules for medical marijuana businesses.
“The city strives to have a robust public input process no matter what we’re trying to do,” said Michael McConnell, a planner with the city’s Community Development Department. “With this being a more hot-button issue, we want to start early.”
This review process was sparked last year when the city annexed some properties on Helena’s west side – including one on Winston Street that already had a working dispensary.
The city had a longstanding code that said it could not license any business that was permitted under state law but not under federal law. That meant medical marijuana businesses couldn’t operate in city limits.
City commissioners voted last month to suspend that rule for six months. That allowed the dispensary, called The Higher Standard, to keep operating temporarily while the city considered whether to make permanent changes to the code.
As a result of the moratorium, Helena is temporarily open for business for all medical marijuana operations. Glenn Jorgenson, the city’s administrative services director, said they began accepting business license applications for dispensaries on Wednesday – and two have already been filed.
Community development director Sharon Haugen said, currently, dispensaries are classified as “general retail” operations. They can operate in any area zoned for retail, including commercial and light manufacturing area.
Haugen said it was difficult to find an appropriate classification for grow operations. Leaders eventually settled on grouping them with “horticulture” – meaning they are allowed across the city.
Most of the people attending Wednesday’s meeting said they supported allowing dispensaries and grow operations in city limits, but restricting them to commercial and industrial areas. Some suggested additional regulations, like keeping them away from schools and churches. Others said the existing rules will be enough.
James Thomas, the owner of The Higher Standard, said he doesn’t see a reason to treat dispensaries differently from other retail outlets. He said the state already regulates things like how close a medical marijuana provider can be to a school, so the city shouldn’t need to add more restrictions of its own.
“Anybody that’s still operating in medical marijuana at this point with licenses, they’re doing the right thing,” he said. “I feel like the city of Helena is definitely going to benefit from more safe access to medical marijuana dispensaries.”
Thomas said he hopes the city can reach whatever decision it makes on zoning quickly so that providers have more clarity about what will be allowed.
“I think a lot of folks are really excited, and they’re going to get a business license and they want to open a store,” he said. “That’s great, but if this thing doesn’t work out, and you spent all that money and you put all that time and effort into an area where they decide that zoning isn’t allowed, then that business license is going to be canceled when the moratorium is over, and you’re going to have start over somewhere else.”
Haugen said the Helena Zoning Commission will hold work sessions next month based on the input they receive about this issue. They could propose changes to the current rules soon after. The Helena City Commission would have to approve any changes.
The goal would be to finalize the plans around April before the moratorium expires.
“We’re hoping that the city commission and the zoning commission will take these suggestions to heart and craft an ordinance that represents the community view,” said McConnell.