After discussing guesthouses and proper parking guidelines for motorcoaches on Monday night, the Whitefish City Council turned its attention to marijuana.
Perhaps most surprising, few members of the public stood up to voice their opinions. Instead, with little controversy, the council narrowly voted to ban all medical marijuana businesses in Whitefish until a permanent ordinance is drafted, a process that should take several months. The ban does not affect individual registered patients, nor does it pertain to caregivers with three or fewer patients. These are considered “home occupations.”
The council was split 3-3 on the urgency ordinance, but Mayor Mike Jenson broke the tie by voting in favor. The three dissenting voters – Ryan Friel, Nancy Woodruff and Frank Sweeney – favored an alternative urgency ordinance that would have allowed medical marijuana businesses with a conditional use permit until a permanent law is enacted.
Woodruff, however, said either option was acceptable and said she was pleased that both the city and public handled a potentially controversial issue with class.
“This is an issue that could be kind of sensitive and explosive, but it hasn’t been,” Woodruff said.
The dilemma of how to appropriately zone medical marijuana businesses arose when Planning and Building Director Dave Taylor began receiving inquiries about opening up dispensaries in Whitefish. Inquiries included both people who wanted to sell medical marijuana and those who wanted to grow it as well.
With no laws on the book, Taylor said he couldn’t, nor could anyone else in the city, prohibit the businesses, or even direct where they could be located. One proposal involved opening a medical marijuana dispensary near Whitefish Middle School, which would have been allowed in the absence of a governing ordinance.
Taylor brought this to the attention of the city council in November, prompting Phelps to draft the two urgency ordinances that were discussed at Monday’s meeting.
One of Phelps’ drafts, proposal A, prohibits all medical marijuana businesses until a permanent law is complete. Proposal B allows the businesses to open, with conditional permit guidelines calling for buffer zones around entities such as school, playgrounds and churches. The council opted for plan A, with minor changes to the language.
Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House and middle school principal Kerry Drown spoke at the meeting in favor of proposal A. They would like to see a clearly articulated buffer around schools and, furthermore, House thinks it’s best to have a complete moratorium while city officials take a closer look at the issue.
That way, he said, a business won’t move into a location that the city later regrets but can’t change. He wants fully established zones to be on the books.
“Only the council can set up a zone,” House said.
Rick Rosio, owner of Montana Pain Management in Missoula, spoke on behalf of the alternative ordinance. Explaining that many of his clinic’s regulars are quadriplegics, chemotherapy patients and hospice patients, he argued that his services are vital for local health care. To the knowledge of city officials, there are no medical marijuana businesses currently operating in Whitefish.
Additionally, he said his clinic, which has more than 300 patients and 10 employees, operates professionally and in a manner similar to a traditional clinic. It also donates to local charities, he said. A member of the public testified to the professionalism of Rosio’s clinic. Rosio said medical marijuana is an alternative to narcotics.
“Anyone choosing to put the clinic across the street from a school didn’t deserve the license in the first place,” Rosio said.
While researching to draft the ordinances, Phelps found very little guidance from other cities. Though the Montana Medical Marijuana Act was approved in 2004, the issue has only recently come to a head. Of the more than 4,500 registered patients in the state, about 3,000 have received their cards in the past 10 months or so, said Roy Kemp of the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The city council in Billings tabled a similar urgency ordinance to Whitefish’s proposal B in November. Other than that, it appears Whitefish is leading the way in making formal decisions on how to deal locally with a fairly vague state law.
“I don’t think anyone’s really ahead of us in that sense,” Phelps said.
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