By Eveln Pyburn
County Commissioners passed a resolution of intent to adopt interim regulations governing the sale and production of marijuana in the county, outside city boundaries. The temporary regulations will be in effect for a year, at which time state law requires that the commissioners adopt more permanent regulations – that is, if the county doesn’t put the issue on a county-wide ballot in the interim.
A public hearing and action by commissioners regarding the temporary regulations will be held on Nov. 23. The commissioners see a need for some kind of regulations because the law that made the possession, sale and processing of marijuana legal – HB 107 – goes into effect January 1 and the commissioners believe there needs to be guidelines for those planning to go into the business.
Commissioners are opting to adopt interim measures because the state — the Department of Revenue — which has final authority over regulations, has not issued its regulations. In the interim the County Planning Department, will be conducting the research and writing final regulations.
Another option for county commissioners, one which continues to be bounced around, is to put the issue of selling marijuana on the ballot for the county, like the city did. Comments have been made about how surprising was the margin that voters in Billings rejected the sale of drug in the city after having approved the initiative that made it legal. City voters passed the initiative by a 4,000 vote margin in 2020, but they rejected its sale within the city limits two weeks ago 18,045 to 14,696.
HB 107 allows cities and counties to put the issue on the ballot in their jurisdiction or to accept the results of their city or county voters in the 2020 election on the initiative that was passed statewide to legalize recreational or adult use and production of marijuana. The initiative passed county wide by 1100 votes, or 50.7 percent to 49.3 percent. City voters passed the initiative by a 4,000 vote margin in 2020.
In a November 2, 2021 election, voters in the City of Billings rejected allowing the sale or dispensing of marijuana within the city limits, but it remains legal for growers, manufacturers and laboratories to function. The City Council is in the process of writing regulations for those functions within the city.
County commissioners voted 2-1 in August not to put the issue on the ballot for reconsideration in Yellowstone County, however there is still time in state law for them to reconsider and call for an election.
Commissioners indicated that they expect conversation regarding that option to continue.
County regulations are only effective within zoned areas in the county. Outside those areas there is little regulation except that imposed by the state, which issues licenses for those entering the business.
How many businesses already exist in the county – those that distribute medical marijuana in the county which are already legal – is uncertain. The state doesn’t disseminate much information to local governments about the businesses. But, Nicole Cromwell of the planning department said she has explored the question and believes there are about 42.
The state law gives the medical marijuana purveyors an 18-month lead in getting the recreational license and to sell recreational marijuana.
The speculation is that most of the medical shops will disappear and the recreational sales will dominate the industry as changes are implemented.
There were those who spoke about changes they would like to see made in the law, which included limits as to the potency of the drug and amounts allowed in packages, and some said they would like to see a cap on the number of licenses that are allowed.
The county has little zoning and few controls for how the industry will operate much of it will be dictated by the state Department of Revenue. In the parts of the county with no zoning at all, which is the majority of Yellowstone County, nearly any kind of business can set up shop how it likes.
The areas within the county that are zoned sit close to Billings city limits. In those areas, recreational marijuana storefronts must be separated at least 600 feet from schools, churches, youth centers and addiction recovery centers, and 350 feet from residential areas.