June 4, 2023

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Billings to vote again on marijuana industry legalization

4 min read

A city council meeting on Monday decided that Billings residents would vote again on legalizing marijuana.

Although HB 701 was passed, which some voters thought would fully legalize marijuana, there are still some votes left. The bill divided the marijuana manufacturing and selling business into seven different categories and gave municipalities the power to cast a vote on which category would be allowed.

Yellowstone County commissioners voted against another county-level vote on Aug. 3, where a tie between the two commissioners present nullified the motion to hold the vote. There County Commissioner John Ostlund stated, “I don’t think you can vote again if you don’t like the outcome of an election.”

Public comments at the district commissioner’s meeting were divided, with some attendees supporting legalizing the marijuana business, arguing that another vote would bypass the will of voters. Others felt that legalizing the marijuana industry could lead to increased crime rates and that voters did not fully understand what they were voting for.

Monday’s city council meeting was no different, with public comments on the bill split between those who oppose a second vote and those who support one.

Commentators who opposed the second vote included pharmacy owners, supporters of marijuana legalization, and marijuana users. The opposition consisted of a few well-known anti-legalization faces, including Steve Zabawa and David Lewis of Safe Montana.

“I think it’s just crazy we’re trying to ban a plant,” said Aubrey Kinkaide, a Billings resident. Kinkaide’s comment focused on statistics comparing high annual death rates from alcohol with low death rates from marijuana use. “We have the opportunity to be a little more forward-looking in this city.”

Another participant who spoke out against the vote was Tina Walker Smith, a former pharmacy owner. “Those who say they didn’t get a vote, that they want their vote: We have had this vote four times now, once for recreation, and it has been approved,” she said. “In the infamous words of the district administrator: ‘I don’t think you can vote again if you don’t like the result of the election.”

Across the aisle, Zabawa, owner of Rimrock Auto Group and director of SafeMontana, made arguments based on the fairness of the previous vote. “Was the election on I-190 fair, was it fair and even and accurate?” Asked Zabawa. “I sued because I thought it was unconstitutional.” Zabawa recommended that the Council postpone the additional vote to the November vote.

Ultimately, the council voted six to three to have the second vote in the November 2nd ballot. Council members Danny Choriki, Denise Joy and Kendra Shaw voted against. Two council members, Mike Boyett and Mike Yakawich, were absent and excused from voting.

The six commissioners who voted to have the vote on the ballot focused on both the cost of regulating the marijuana industry and the fact that some sort of regulatory action would eventually have to be put in place to control the industry. Others expressed frustration at the politicization of the issue and the lack of action at the state or federal level to resolve the matter.

“I think that the voters did not vote on HB 701, which comes from the state parliament,” said Councilor Penny Ronning. “You voted on a ballot initiative with 190-11 sentences. The state took these 11 sentences and quite frankly created chaos in our state. “

Among the three council members who voted against an additional vote, it was agreed that the voters had already had the opportunity to vote on the issue and had made their decision. “The voters have already made up their minds,” said Joy. “If we ask voters to decide something and they vote, it’s up to us … to figure out how to deal with it, how to regulate it.”

With the council’s motion passed, the question of which parts of the marijuana industry should be allowed within the city limits of Billings will be put on the ballot in November.

Voters are asked to vote yes or no to allow any of the defined categories within the industry, including growing and growing marijuana, making marijuana-based products, dispensing medical marijuana, dispensing recreational marijuana, dispensing both Types of marijuana, establishment of testing facilities for marijuana and transportation of marijuana products.

The council quickly made it clear that the vote will and cannot affect the legality of possession or use of recreational or medicinal marijuana in Billings. The effects of the vote will be limited to the legality of certain aspects of the marijuana industry within the city limits.

This method of voting on each individual category has previously been criticized for confusing underinformed voters and potentially causing disruption to the industry. The results of the vote could result in the sale of medical marijuana being allowed within the city, but not the sale of recreational marijuana, which would create enforcement difficulties.

On the flip side, it may become legal to grow marijuana within city limits but not transport it to pharmacies or sell it to consumers, making pharmacies or growers impossible to operate.

However, locals in the industry remain positive about their ability to generate sales. “It won’t matter what,” said Smith. “Recreational marijuana will be everywhere, whether there are pharmacies in town or not.”

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