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City of Missoula begins drafting ordinance around recreational marijuana sales

In Montana, 57% of voters approved the recreational marijuana initiative. (Montana Free Press file photo)

City planners will begin writing an ordinance governing the sale of recreational marijuana in Missoula and where such businesses can locate, hoping to have an ordinance in place by Jan. 1, when the sale of pot becomes legal.

Missoula County voters last year overwhelmingly passed a statewide ballot measure that gave individual counties the option of accepting the sale and use of recreational marijuana. With the sale date rapidly approaching, the city plans to adopt rules guiding the new industry in accordance with state law.

“Our team has been looking into our own regulations in regard to how we’ve done things in the past with medical marijuana businesses, and looking at how other places have responded to this kind of legislation,” said city planner Ben Brewer.

According to city officials, more than 70 marijuana related businesses currently operate in the Missoula metropolitan area. Of those, around 50 serve as medical marijuana dispensaries while 20 operate as cultivators or fill other industry needs.

Under state law, existing medical marijuana businesses that had a license prior to November 2020 can begin selling recreational marijuana on Jan. 1. Other business licenses will be available to the general public for recreational sales on July 1.

To prevent any negative impacts from the new industry, the City Council on Wednesday directed city planners to prepare an ordinance amending the city’s zoning code to address where a marijuana business can operate, from the retail end to the cultivation and manufacturing end.

Proposals around cultivation and manufacturing would define a business by the size of its operation and place it into a certain classification, ranging from artisan growers to full-scale manufacturing. The business would be permitted in certain zoning districts based upon that classification.

But retail sales would be permitted in all districts, though the proposed ordinance would restrict dispensaries from locating within 500 feet of a school or church. Nor could one dispensary sit within 500 feet of another dispensary.

The hope is to prevent the clustering of pot shops in any particular location.

“Our Hip Strip and downtown have already had a huge impact by stores coming in,” said council member Gwen Jones. “In the past 12 to 18 months, we’re seeing a huge change in the vibe downtown, with marijuana stores going in and front-loading as medical prior to the January start date for recreational.”

Jones would like to see a buffer larger than 500 feet. Under state law, the distance is measured from entry to entry.

“Right now with the 500-foot buffer, for the most part it could be every block. I think that’s too close,” Jones said. “I want to disperse these across Missoula, and creating a bigger buffer would create that incentive.”

Other measures could also be included, such as capping the number of marijuana businesses as a whole, and limiting the number of “frosted” windows on any business. 

Ensuring the right end of the industry is located in the right area is also a goal of the proposed ordinance.

“A retail dispensary is better suited for commercial areas alongside other retail businesses,” said city planner Cassie Tripard. “But if they continue to cluster, they’ll lead to a lack of diverse uses in that particular neighborhood, affecting urban form and a lack of other amenities.”

On a 9-1 vote, City Council members on Wednesday directed planning staff to prepare the new ordinance and set a public hearing for November. The issue will also go before the planning board and further City Council review with an anticipated adoption date set for Nov. 29.