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Medical marijuana questions in Libby

by Canda Harbaugh
| November 17, 2010 8:00 PM

LIBBY, Mont. - The Libby City Council dodged a bullet this spring when a new medical marijuana dispensary took up shop 40 feet outside the city limits.

Serious discussions on the matter have begun again, however, now that a new dispensary opened in the city center last month.

The council's main concern reflects that of municipals across the state. Marijuana is recognized for its medicinal purposes in the State of Montana but not at the federal level.

A medical marijuana enterprise is in conflict with the city's business license ordinance, which states that businesses must follow all local, state and federal laws.

The council recently approved a business license for the Helping Center of Libby because of what council members say was intentionally omitted information. "Pain clinic" was filled in under the "type of business" section.

"When you put pain clinic, that could mean a lot of things," Mayor Doug Roll said. "When you don't specify that it's a medical marijuana dispensary, that's not being truthful on the business license."

The company's director, Kevin Moore, who heads up affiliated dispensaries in Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Bigfork - all part of the Helping Centers of Montana - said that he was completely transparent through the process of opening the new clinic on California Avenue, including on the application.

"Well, we disclosed that when we got our business license, that we were medical marijuana caregivers, that we were in the health industry and that's what we did," he said.

Chief of Police Jim Smith informed the mayor of the dispensary after taking notice of the marijuana leaf logo on the window of the business, which is located one block from the sheriff's office and two blocks from Asa Wood Elementary School. The mayor put the issue in the resolution and ordinance committee during last week's council meeting.

"Technically, at this point, they are in violation by that statute," Roll said, "but I want you guys to take a look at it and come up with your interpretation."

The council has shied away from regulating the business in hopes that it wouldn't surface again until state legislators clarify the Medical Marijuana Act or until there is a court precedent for municipals to rely on. Local state representative Jerry Bennett gave his input at last week's meeting.

"I don't know how your ordinances read, but I know some cities have placed a moratorium until the legislature comes to some sort of order on this," he said. "Others have come out with an outright ban within city limits until such time as they can deal with it."

The mayor and council are wary of the city of Libby becoming the subject of a lawsuit.

"The City of Helenaright now is in a lawsuitwith the medical marijuana folks because they're business license is exactly like ours," Roll said, "which is why I'm a little hesitant."

Helena medical marijuana provider Paul Schmidt filed suit last month to contest the city's ban. He claims that a municipal doesn't have the right to regulate the trade because it falls under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

While there are people who benefit from medical marijuana, Bennett argued, there are clearly many more who abuse it. He said there are 23,613 cardholders in Montana and as of May, 586 were in Lincoln County.

"It's estimated that only 5 percent of the people that have a medical marijuana card are your cancer patients, your MS patients," he added. "The rest of them are 21 to 30 years old. It's a problem. If the legislature can't screw this thing down, I would encourage you to get every voter out to repeal this law."

For now, the Helping Center of Libby operates legally with a city business license. There has been some talk of zoning dispensaries into Libby's medical district and away from schools and daycares, but the ordinance committee had not yet met on the matter as of Monday.

Moore said that the Helping Centers of Montana, which will soon add clinics in Eureka, Whitefish, Cut Bank and Glasgow, are operated strictly by the letter of the law and that each clinic's location is chosen strategically.

"All of our locations, we're either in the medical corridor or we like to be close to the courthouse, you know, the sheriff's department," he said. "That's the reason we picked the location that we're at."

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