With so many communities around Montana banning medical marijuana businesses, Missoula stands out for its relative acceptance of the burgeoning industry. Still, the city has quietly begun to restrict "cannabusinesses" from opening up shop near schools and in residential areas.
The Missoula City-County Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) recently created a map of the city stamped with a marijuana leaf and covered with about 30 green circles. The circles, adding up to 3,857 of Missoula's 17,879 acres, represent 1,000-foot buffer zones around all of the city's schools, where pot shops are now off limits.
The policy, handed down by Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent in April, is based on state law (Mont. Code Ann. § 45-9-109) prohibiting the distribution of dangerous drugs on or near school property. Mike Barton, OPG's interim director, says that since the policy was enacted only one business application has been denied or withdrawn for being in the vicinity of a school.
As of last week, Missoula County was home to 2,924 registered medical marijuana patients, more than any other county in Montana and about 15 percent of the state's 19,635 total patients. The state lists 565 registered caregivers in Missoula County. Only 44 caregivers have applied for business licenses in the city, according to Finance Director Brentt Ramharter. Twenty-five have been issued, 16 are in the application process, and three have been withdrawn for various reasons.
In addition to the school buffer zones, Barton says the city has also wrestled with how to regulate medical marijuana businesses operating out of homes. OPG ruled on June 25 that such a business can serve no more than three patients.
Missoula's off-the-radar implementation of these medical marijuana policies has largely avoided the zoning controversies plaguing city councils from Whitefish to Billings.
"[Medical marijuana] is emerging in terms of policy and practice in how local governments deal with it," Barton says. "Some communities have been very reactive to this, and I don't think Missoula's been extraordinarily reactive one way or the other...Obviously it's going to be a little rocky going from something that's a criminal activity to being legal, but I don't think Missoula's gone through any contortions trying to deal with it."