The Higher Standard, a medical marijuana dispensary, (copy)

The Higher Standard, a medical marijuana dispensary on Winston Street, was annexed into the city of Helena along with about 300 other Westside properties on Dec. 1, 2018.

On two unanimous votes Monday, the Helena City Commission decided to allow medical marijuana providers to keep their businesses in city limits for the long haul.

Monday's votes makes two major changes for medical marijuana sellers and growers in the city. Sellers are allowed to have their businesses in any general retail zoned areas in the city, with a buffer area for schools, and growers can raise marijuana in the city's commercial and industrial zoned areas.

Though medical marijuana is legal in Montana, the city of Helena previously could not issue a business license to a marijuana dispensary or grow operation as marijuana is illegal under federal law. 

In December, the city put a seven-month moratorium on section 4-1-11 of the Helena city code, which reads, “No provision herein contained shall be construed so as to license any trade, business, occupation, vocation, pursuit, profession or entertainment prohibited by any law of the United States or this state, or by any provision of this code.”

That moratorium allowed vendors to get a business license in Helena good until June 30, 2019. Now that the change in law has passed, vendor licenses will expire Dec. 31, 2019.

Community Development Director Sharon Haugen said since the moratorium passed, seven different businesses have applied for licenses in Helena for selling or growing operations.

A major part of the city's decision-making process relied on Helena residents' opinions. In multiple meetings for the Zoning Commission and a January open house, the city asked for and received feedback from Helenans.

"The majority of people said yes, the city of Helena should allow this, but it should limit locations," Haugen said. 

Prior to the changes to city code, grow operations were allowed almost anywhere in the city under a definition of horticulture, which allows residents to grow fruits, vegetables and other kinds of plants almost everywhere in the city. Haugen said that definition was too broad for many Helenans, so making the area where growers could operate smaller was a key change that needed to be made.

Schools will have a large buffer zone from any marijuana vending or growing establishment.

"They are not allowed within 500 feet of a school for dispensaries, and a grow operation cannot be within 1,000 feet of a school," Haugen explained.

Home marijuana businesses also are curtailed due to citizen feeling, according to Haugen. 

Commissioner Heather O'Loughlin said she felt "good about where the zoning commission came down" on the medical marijuana issue.

Commissioner Ed Noonan was also pleased with the decision.

"I was glad we considered this after the annexation," of 300 properties on the Westside of Helena. "I'm also glad it has worked out this way."

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