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Billings City Council moved closer to solidifying its plans for regulating the city’s medical marijuana industry on Monday, and also clarified, after much confusion, that recreational cannabis sales will be fully prohibited within city limits.

During municipal elections earlier this month, Billings residents voted to ban recreational cannabis shops within the city. And earlier this fall, the council had drafted an ordinance to allow a handful of medical marijuana businesses (which have been banned in Billings since 2017) to operate in the city. That ordinance led some cannabis industry leaders to believe that those medical dispensaries would be entitled to also sell recreational cannabis when the newly legalized adult-use market opens in Montana on Jan. 1, 2022.

Much of that confusion was put to bed during Monday’s City Council meeting. 

“We’re at a full stop on retail marijuana dispensaries,” City Attorney Karen Tracy said during the meeting. “The voters have said they do not want this within city limits, and this council is obligated to enforce the will of the voters.”

An amended version of the council’s own ordinance, however, which passed Monday on a 10-1 vote, would allow up to eight medical marijuana dispensaries to operate in the city; an earlier version had capped medical dispensaries at four. That ordinance will require a successful third reading Nov. 22 to become law.

“We’re at a full stop on retail marijuana dispensaries. The voters have said they do not want this within city limits, and this council is obligated to enforce the will of the voters.”

Billings City Attorney Karen Tracy

“It’s good for those that need it, it’s more accessible,” council member Shaun Brown said during the meeting. “Limiting it down to four, there’s no reason for that.”

The ordinance creates complications for Montana Advanced Caregivers, the only medical dispensary currently operating within city limits. The company’s CEO, Richard Abromeit, told Montana Free Press that MAC has been operating since 2009, before dispensaries were prohibited in Billings. An ongoing legal battle has allowed it to remain open while medical dispensaries are otherwise banned in Billings.

“We’re protected via [temporary restraining orders],” Abromeit explained.

If the new ordinance passes later this month, the city administrator will begin accepting applications for the eight medical dispensary licenses on Jan. 1. 

Despite already being in operation, MAC would be subject to the lottery system by which those licenses will be assigned.

“We would go through the process,” Abromeit said.

Beyond the ordinance’s allowance of eight medical dispensaries, a separate zoning ordinance would limit those dispensaries to particular industrial and heavy commercial zones, and additionally require them to be located at least 1,000 feet from churches, schools, parks, and other public places. 

While recreational sales will not be permitted in the city, other marijuana licenses, such as those authorizing cultivation, transportation and storage, will be allowed. All marijuana cultivation, processing and manufacturing facilities are subject to similar distance requirements. 

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Max Savage Levenson writes "The Sit-Down" column for Montana Free Press. Max is additionally the founder of Big Sky Chat House, a weekly long-form interview newsletter featuring movers and shakers across Montana. His writing on music and cannabis policy has appeared in outlets including Pitchfork, NPR's All Songs Considered, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Reason.