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Kalispell council still mulling marijuana rules

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | July 12, 2021 12:00 AM

Local marijuana legislation returns to the spotlight Monday evening during the Kalispell City Council work session.

Pot rules in Kalispell are the only discussion item on the agenda.

This won't be the first time the council has examined marijuana sales since the state voted to legalize the drug last year.

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the Montana Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act on May 18, and the council took up the issue at a work session on June 28.

At the first work session, there was ample debate over the best way for Kalispell to implement the new state law, or whether to even allow marijuana sales in the city at all.

In fact, council member Tim Kluesner asked the council and city staff whether it would be possible to simply ignore the new legislation and continue prohibiting marijuana sales in the city.

Kluesner received some pushback for his hardline stance.

In the legal opinions of City Attorney Charlie Harball and Assistant City Attorney Johnna Preble, failing to legalize weed sales — at least in some form — could violate the recently passed legislation.

They warned a failure to enact the law at a local level might make Kalispell a target for lawsuits.

The only way Kalispell could avoid establishing marijuana sales, according to Harball's interpretation of the law, would be through another election. Kalispell citizens would be responsible for petitioning to put the marijuana issue on a future ballot.

Otherwise, state law requires the city to approve local marijuana legislation by January 2022.

If the council ends up legalizing marijuana sales in the city, the primary regulatory question for how to do that will be a matter of zoning.

One approach the council will consider is the possibility of zoning marijuana dispensaries as a retail use.

Under that categorization, marijuana dispensaries would be allowed as a permitted use without restrictions in all city business and health-care zones. If the council takes this avenue, marijuana dispensaries would be treated like pharmacies and liquor stores.

A stricter option for zoning marijuana dispensaries would be to regard them similarly to casinos.

The zones in which casinos are allowed to operate are limited, and require casinos to meet certain criteria. These include buffers between the business and churches, schools, parks, city residential zones, federal highways and other casinos.

Casinos also are required to follow design criteria that keep them shielded from adjoining businesses, such as bars and restaurants.

Following this precedent, the city could limit marijuana dispensaries to particular zones and require owners to secure a conditional-use permit or an administrative conditional-use permit. Buffers and design standards like those in place for casinos could become part of the city's regulations regarding marijuana dispensaries.

However, neither of these two possibilities addresses the cultivation and processing of marijuana within the city.

Marijuana cultivation could be classified under the city's "greenhouse, nursery centers and landscaping materials," or as an "agricultural or horticultural" use.

Processing might be considered to be accessory to cultivation, or could fall under a manufacturing/industrial category.

However, the work session agenda points out that "simply using existing categories may not adequately address how to best fit the use within the community."

The work session starts at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 201 First Ave. E.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.