BILLINGS — The Billings City Council increased the available medical marijuana dispensary licenses in the city from four to eight at its Monday night meeting.
The Council's marijuana discussion was part of a months-long effort to craft marijuana business laws and zoning laws for Billings.
The Council passed second readings on both the business and zoning laws on Monday night.
A third reading on both draft laws is expected to take place at a Council meeting on Nov. 15, when the new laws will likely be put on the books.
A previous draft of the city law had four medical dispensary licenses and four recreational dispensary licenses available in the city. Since voters prohibited the recreational shops in the election, no recreational dispensaries will be allowed a business license.
The change to the number of licenses was initiated by Councilmember Penny Ronning, who represents Ward 4 underneath the Billings Rimrocks.
Ronning said she's met with medical marijuana patients at medical dispensaries in Billings who told her the cannabis products help them stay away from opiate pain killers.
"Those individuals that come in are battling horrendous illnesses like cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, lupus, and a number of other really horrific diseases and medical marijuana has allowed them to engage in their life where opiates can take them out of that engagement," Ronning said.
To decide who to give the marijuana business licenses to, the draft ordinance outlines a lottery system that qualified applicants can enter, with the task of conducting the lottery falling to the city administrator.
There's still no word on how much a medical marijuana dispensary license will cost. For the zoning laws, the Council added another thing that medical dispensaries have to stay 1,000 feet away from behavioral health facilities.
That adds to the list of things the dispensaries have to be separated 1,000 feet from. They include churches, schools, parks with playgrounds, daycare facilities, youth centers, and neighborhood zoning districts.
The council also voted to make the medical dispensaries locate 150 feet away from arterial streets, which are the larger streets with multiple lanes, often providing speedy travel through the city. Main Street, Montana Avenue, Rimrock Road, and Grand Avenue are some examples of arterial streets.
The proposed marijuana regulations in Billings don't impact the approximately 26 medical marijuana dispensaries in Yellowstone County. Many are close to city/county borders and will be able to sell recreational marijuana to adults over the age of 21 starting the first of the new year, providing they are in good standing with the state and local government.
That doesn't mean the county dispensaries are completely in the clear.
During public comment, Steve Zabawa, director of the anti-drug group SafeMontana, told the Council that the Yellowstone County Commissioners will talk about whether to hold another election to prohibit dispensaries in the county on Nov. 18.
“I believe they’ve learned a lot from you and from the city in how to vote right now. SafeMontana would like to see no recreational marijuana in Yellowstone County also. I believe that will pass also," Zabawa said.
Tina Walker-Smith has been a regular at council meetings where marijuana is on the agenda. She owns Canna of Eden, a CBD retailer and cannabis education service in Billings. Smith had a message for dispensary owners in the county.
“It is absolutely essential that the providers step up and start fighting and making their needs known because I do think that’s going to be an incredibly ugly battle," Smith said.
To read more about the marijuana business laws and zoning laws, view the Council agenda by clicking here.