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BILLINGS - In a seven-hour meeting Monday night, the Billings City Council heard from what seemed like every side of the medical marijuana debate.

It heard about the history of marijuana and "reefer madness," the pharmacology of marijuana and rumors of dozens of students at local high schools with medical marijuana cards. Council members were threatened with lawsuits, and they engaged in lengthy discussions about every angle of the business that's exploding in Montana.

At the end of the meeting, which stretched well into Tuesday morning, council members voted 8-2 to temporarily ban new medical marijuana businesses and freeze the businesses already in place. The 12 or so businesses within 1,000 feet of schools will be allowed to stay where they are for now.

The moratorium is in place for six months and can be extended for another year. Council members said it gives the city time to come up with permanent rules on where medical marijuana businesses can operate, if at all.

The city has issued at least 89 licenses to medical marijuana businesses in recent months. Not all of those businesses are operating, and those that weren't when the council passed its moratorium won't be allowed to open.

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On Tuesday, one business owner expressed displeasure about the city's actions.

"There's a big panic that's going on right now with the thought that there's 80 businesses opening up. But there's not going to be 80 businesses." said Mike Beatti, who recently opened Montana Cannabis Connection.

Beatti said his business, which is near Billings Senior High, is outside of the school's already-established drug-free zone, but that he's concerned about the possible effects of the moratorium on medical marijuana businesses around town.

"I don't like the idea of anybody sitting in judgment of what somebody else discusses with their doctor behind closed doors," he said. "That's not the way this system's supposed to work. You shouldn't be pushed by a governing body to be moved or relocated."

Beatti stressed the importance of education on the issue of medical marijuana, whether you support or oppose it. One issue he feels has been ignored is that card-carrying patients are allowed, under state law, to grow marijuana plants on their own.

"There are a lot of people that are getting it from caregivers," he said. "These patients, every single individual patient, has the right to grow his or her own six plants."

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On Monday night, the council considered three options: the moratorium that it ultimately passed, a similar moratorium that also would have required businesses to move if they were within 1,000 feet of schools and an all-out ban on the medical-marijuana business in Billings. A city map projected on a screen showed fewer and fewer legal locations as each increasingly restrictive option was discussed.

Around 1 a.m., Mayor Tom Hanel said he wanted an all-out ban, and other council members came out in support of such a ban. Hanel, a former city police officer, said all his training had taught him that marijuana is a dangerous "gateway" drug that leads to more serious drug abuse.

"There are too many unanswered questions," Hanel said. "I'm not convinced that we have qualified persons distributing this drug to persons in need."

The council might have approved the all-out ban, but city officials jumped in with advice on the legal ramifications of eliminating all such businesses through a temporary ordinance. City Attorney Brent Brooks told the council that he was "paid to worry" about litigation, and City Administrator Tina Volek said the city was facing a budget crisis in a few years that would only be worsened by lengthy legal battles.

Banning all medical marijuana businesses might require the city to seek restraining orders in District Court against all 89 licensed businesses in the city, Brooks said.

The council voted 7-3 against the all-out ban; Hanel, Dick Clark and Jim Ronquillo voted for it.

The council then approved the six-month moratorium on an 8-2 vote, with Hanel and Ronquillo voting against it. Both want stricter rules.

Now the ad hoc committee set up by the council will get back to work on a permanent ordinance. In recent weeks, some wanted the city to wait until the state Legislature had a chance next year to come up with new rules, but council members now seem unwilling to wait.

"I think we have to craft a solution because I don't think we can count on the Legislature," Councilman Ed Ulledalen said.

Councilman Denis Pitman, chairman of the ad hoc committee, said he thinks the city will impose strict zoning rules on medical marijuana businesses well before the Legislature takes up the issue.

"If a lot of people are watching Billings for leadership, we're going to step up and start providing it," Pitman said. "If nothing else, we need to get the clock ticking on these facilities that will be amortized (forced to move). In the end, we're going to do some pretty restrictive zoning."

Pitman thinks that voters may actually try to recall or significantly change the medical marijuana laws. If the rules are upheld, then that means that people in Montana still approve of medical marijuana, Pitman said.

"If the citizens are really this upset about it, they need to go for it and become active in recalling it," he said. "I think nothing but good can happen with a second referendum."

Billings Gazette reporter Zach Benoit contributed to this story.

Reporter Matt Hagengruber can be reached at (406) 657-1261 or at mhagengruber@billingsgazette.com.

 

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