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City council prepares to take up rules for marijuana sales

by DERRICK PERKINS
Daily Inter Lake | November 9, 2021 7:00 AM

At the behest of Police Chief Scott Kessel, members of Libby City Council’s ordinance committee will begin considering rules around the sale of recreational marijuana locally this week.

While voters approved the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Montana in November 2020, retailers must wait until Jan. 1, 2022 to begin selling cannabis. And that’s only in counties that approved the ballot initiative that led to legalization, a list that includes Lincoln County.

In counties where voters rejected the initiative, sale of marijuana will remain banned unless a second vote on the measure is held. Municipalities within counties where marijuana sales are legal may opt out, as voters in Billings did earlier this month.

“My point the other night is that they’ve had a year to look at what recreational marijuana may look like in the city,” Kessel said last week. “First of all, do you want to allow it? If you do, where do you want to zone for it?”

Despite the looming Jan. 1 start date, city officials in Libby still have time to consider marijuana sales. The framework for legalization adopted by the state Legislature limits retail sales to existing medicinal dispensaries for the first 18 months. City councilors in 2017 rejected a proposed ordinance allowing for dispensaries in Libby.

The nearest such facilities now operate just on the other side of the city-county line.

Kessel said he approached city council after watching other communities in Montana grapple with the issue. While Billings rejected retail marijuana sales, voters in Yellowstone County approved a 3 percent tax on both retail and medicinal sales. Parks County residents enacted a similar tax scheme. In Missoula County, voters approved a 3 percent tax on retail sales, but not on medical marijuana sales, according to the Montana Free Press.

Officials in Park County, which has a slightly smaller population than Lincoln County, told the Montana Free Press that they expected the tax to bring in between $58,000 and $70,000 annually. In Missoula County, officials estimated that a combined tax on medicinal and recreational marijuana would add a $716,000 revenue stream to its coffers, according to a fact sheet released ahead of last week’s election.

Kessel said his interest mostly lay in making sure the city had a plan in place for how to approach retail marijuana outlets.

“I don’t have an opinion on the merits of recreational marijuana — that’s not my place. We’ll enforce the laws and uphold the constitutions of the United State and of the state of Montana,” he said. “If you’re going to allow them, where are you going to allow them? On Mineral Avenue, on the U.S. Highway 2 corridor? Do you not want them at all?”

In Kalispell, city councilors last month opted to restrict the sale of recreational marijuana to industrial zones. An earlier version of the ordinance would have allowed retailers to set up shop in areas zoned for business so long as they kept 300 feet from schools, churches, parks and residential neighborhoods, according to the Daily Inter Lake.

Kessel said he also hoped that city councilors in Libby took marijuana’s criminal status under federal law into consideration. While he does not expect to see the city suffering any penalties for allowing marijuana sales — such as the loss of federal funding or grants — it remains a possibility in the future, Kessel said.

“The only thing I would bring up from our perspective is the same thing I brought up regarding medical dispensaries in the city: It’s currently illegal federally,” he said. “Is there a chance that could cause problems when you’re taking federal dollars, potentially? Is it likely? No. But they have to be aware of that.”

City Councilor Kristin Smith told her colleagues Nov. 1 that her ordinance committee would take point on the conversation. A committee meeting on the topic was scheduled for Nov. 8, after The Western News’ print deadline.