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Voters say no to marijuana dispensaries in Billings

Marijuana tax passing
Posted at 10:40 AM, Nov 03, 2021

BILLINGS — Billings voters are headed to a prohibition of recreational marijuana dispensaries in the city with 55% saying no in unofficial results Tuesday night. According to Yellowstone County election results, 17,107 voted no and 13,817 voted yes.

Voters were even more clear on the question of taxing marijuana at 3% in Yellowstone County. A measure to tax recreational marijuana passed easily at 82%, while the tax on medical marijuana passed with 60%.

With recreational dispensaries barred from the city, that still leaves opportunity for already established medical dispensaries to move into the city, said Tina Walker-Smith, who owns Canna of Eden, a CBD retailer and cannabis education service in Billings.

“Here in the city, medical providers will be able to sell recreational, no matter what. And if the recreational dispensaries-only doesn’t pass, medical providers will still be able to sell both and move into the city if they want to. I just don’t think many will want to with these really restrictive rules," said Smith.

Tina Walker-Smith, owner of Canna of Eden, a CBD retailer and cannabis education service in Billings.

Smith educates local marijuana business people about local laws and general business practices. She has also been a regular at Billings City Council discussions on marijuana policy.

The Billings City Council has been still has yet to finalize its policies regulating marijuana businesses.

Even after the voters said no to recreational dispensaries, there are still six other types of marijuana businesses the city has to regulate. They include cultivation, manufacturer, medical marijuana dispensary, combined use licenses, testing lab and transportation.

The Council is scheduled to have a final vote on its marijuana business regulations next Monday on Nov. 8. Click here to read the meeting agenda and proposed regulations.

A medical marijuana dispensary display at a business near Billings.

Yellowstone County will collect the 3% tax, and hold on to 50% of the revenue each year. Forty-five percent of the yearly revenue will be dolled out to the county's municipalities, like Billings and Laurel, based on population. The remaining 5% per year will go back to the Montana Department of Revenue.

It's estimated that by year five of the tax, Billings would see between $250,000 to $350,000 per year.

This election may serve as a more specific barometer to how Yellowstone County feels about marijuana. In 2020, Yellowstone County voters passed I-190, legalizing marijuana across the state, by a thin margin of 1,142 votes.

The recreational dispensary's failure in Billings might not bode well for the approximately 26 medical marijuana dispensaries in Yellowstone County that will be able to sell recreational marijuana to adults over the age of 21 at the start of the year.

Steve Zabawa co-owns Rimrock Subaru in Billings and is director of SafeMontana, an anti-marijuana and drug group. He said he plans to pressure the county commissioners for another county-wide marijuana election, to put a stop to marijuana in Yellowstone County altogether.

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“(Commissioner) John Ostlund told me that he would take a hard look at it if the city of Billings voted to opt out, he would take a look at putting it up on the ballot in June 2022 and I’m going to hold him to that. So we’ll see what happens.”

Zabawa's group was part of a lawsuit filed last year to overturn I-190, alleging the initiative went against the Montana constitution and took away the Legislature's soul right to appropriate tax revenue. The lawsuit was voluntarily dropped in June this year, according to Yellowstone County News.

A campaign sign put up by anti-marijuana group, SafeMontana at the corner of Broadwater Avenue and Division Street in Billings.

Zabawa said he's got his eye on the 2023 Montana Legislative Session to repeal HB 701, which is the framework for legalization passed by the Legislature in 2021.

"I don’t believe the state of Montana will vote for legalization. They candy-coated it the last time, Christmas came early. They got the extra votes from veterans and people who would never have never voted for this craziness because they were promised money. And that money is not happening. So we’ve really got to be careful of what we promise," Zabawa said.