November 24, 2021

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Helena, Lewis & Clark County prepare for legal marijuana

3 min read

HELENA – Recreational marijuana sales in Montana are now less than four months away, and local governments are starting to consider what options they have to regulate the expanding industry.

House Bill 701, which revised the legal framework for recreational marijuana, allowed adult sales from January 1, 2022 in the 26 counties where most voters supported the Initiative 190 legalization ballot measure.

HB 701 gave these counties – and cities within them – the ability to regulate marijuana businesses for public health, safety, and welfare. You can also call elections and ask if voters would like to ban certain categories of companies such as pharmacies, growers, or manufacturers of marijuana extracts.

At a meeting on Wednesday, the Helena City Commission decided not to ask this question to voters. City officials said they made this recommendation because Helena voters were far behind the I-190 and its companion measure in November 2020.

“It seems clear that this is not really desirable in the city, given the voter approval of both initiatives,” said City Attorney Thomas Jodoin.

However, the commissioners supported the progress made in revising the zoning rules for marijuana as well as city regulations on smoking in public places.

At the time I-190 was approved, Helena had about 12 medical marijuana pharmacies in operation. The city allows them in commercial and industrial areas. Marijuana grows can be done in industrial areas, but only with a conditional use permit – and community development director Sharon Haugen says none are currently operating within city limits.

Haugen said the city will use existing medical marijuana rules as a starting point, but it needs to consider how to deal with the other types of businesses allowed by HB 701, including marijuana vans and manufacturers.

The city’s Zoning Commission could begin reviewing rules for recreational marijuana businesses as early as next month. Any recommendations they make must be presented to the city commission.

“There will be plenty of opportunities for the public to get involved,” said Haugen.

Lewis and Clark County’s leaders say they haven’t started updating their own recreational marijuana regulations. However, they have started looking into the possibility of introducing a local tax on marijuana sales.

HB 701 allows counties to levy an additional tax of up to 3% in front of voters. If voters agree, 50% of the additional revenue goes to the county, 45% to the county’s cities and towns, and 5% to the state for administrative costs.

Lewis and Clark County’s Chief Administrative Officer Roger Baltz said the county’s attorneys don’t believe they can officially propose a tax before Jan. 1, but the county commissioners are keen to bring it forward after that.

“After the decision is made, the voting question is drawn up and then it is up to the voters to say yes or no,” he said.

The proposal would most likely appear on voters’ ballots in June 2022.

HB 701 offers flexibility in how local governments use the additional tax revenue. Baltz said the county hasn’t made a final decision on what to fund, but leaders are considering allocating some to behavioral health programs.

Governments may have a little more time to decide how to regulate recreational marijuana businesses as only a limited number will be able to conduct their businesses immediately. For the first 18 months, only existing medical providers are allowed to sell to recreational customers before the I-190 is passed. The first new providers for adults will only be able to start in July 2023.

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