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Medical marijuana

A caregiver holds a sealed bag of medical marijuana in this file photo.

The Helena Zoning Commission unanimously approved Tuesday draft ordinances that would permit medical marijuana dispensaries in Helena’s three business and commercial districts, the light manufacturing district and the industrial district, but not within 500 feet of schools.

The Helena City Commission will consider the ordinances for first passage on April 22.

As drafted, the ordinances restrict dispensaries and grow operations from all residential districts and the immediate vicinity of schools. The zoning commission drew from state law and public feedback gathered at the zoning commission’s January public meeting at the Helena Civic Center.

If the ordinances are passed by the city commission as drafted, dispensaries would be permitted in Helena’s three business and commercial districts, the light manufacturing district and the industrial district, but not within 500 feet of schools. Grow operations would have to operate within the light manufacturing and industrial districts at least 1,000 feet from schools or residential districts.

Because the ordinances exclude both types of businesses from residential districts, neither would be permitted as a home occupation.

Horticulture would remain legal in all Helena city zones if the ordinances pass without amendment, but its definition in city code would change to specifically exclude grow operations.

Since 1926, the now-dormant section 4-1-11 of Helena city code kept officials from licensing a “trade, business, occupation, vocation, pursuit, profession or entertainment prohibited by” state or federal law in city limits. Marijuana became legal for medical use in Montana 15 years ago, but it remains a banned substance at the federal level.

City commissioners voted this past December to place a moratorium on enforcing section 4-1-11 just two weeks after absorbing a Westside dispensary into city limits.

Sharon Haugen, Helena community development director, said Monday the city licensed seven dispensaries since the moratorium began on Jan. 16.

The moratorium lasts through June 30, or until the city takes definitive action on the code. Haugen said none of the seven dispensaries are in violation of the ordinances the zoning commission confirmed Tuesday.

However, if the city commission takes no action on the code or the moratorium expires, no grandfather clause exists for marijuana-related businesses that began operation in the meantime. The moratorium ordinance states that no business “allowed to continue or (that) is newly formed and begins operation as a result of this moratorium is entitled to any expectation of ongoing business operations” if the city decides not to modify section 4-1-11.

The city commission’s April 22 meeting will convene at 6 p.m. in the commission chambers on the third floor of the City/County Building at 316 N. Park Ave. in Helena.

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Local and State Government Reporter

State and local government reporter for the Independent Record.

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