The question of whether to allow medical marijuana operations in Havre is obsolete under state law, but the city can use zoning to address residents' concerns. The question was raised during a City Council meeting several weeks ago when Mayor Tim Solomon announced that he had been approached with a request to locate a business in the city. Operations are already in place in the area, though, with several providers growing and distributing marijuana for medicinal purposes to more than 100 residents. Concerns about an operation’s proximity to schools and other public gathering places, traffic and water and electricity use can all be addressed through zoning, said Janet Trethewey, the chair of the newly formed Planning and Development Committee, during a meeting Tuesday evening. Many issues surround medical marijuana, committee member Andrew Brekke said. Even so, "I see this simply as a zoning issue," he said. "But we cannot not allow (medical marijuana) according to state statute," Trethewey said. Several cities in the state are dealing with similar questions and zoning issues. Some, such as Whitefish, have crafted regulations. Others, such as Great Falls, have placed moratoriums on the issue until more information can be gathered. While there is no rush to make a decision about how the city will handle medical marijuana operations, Threthewey said that she would like to make decisions sooner than later. Solomon said that he would like to make decisions sooner than later as well, to make sure that providers know what they can and can't do. The facts Initiative 148, passed by a 62 percent margin of voters in 2004, allows medical marijuana in the state, although the federal government still considers it an illegal substance regardless of its use. The Obama administration has called off federal enforcement against medical marijuana users in states. According to www.dphhs. mt.gov, 8,604 people are registered as patients, and 109 of those live in Hill County. Out of the 2,231 caregivers in the state, 15 are in Hill County. To obtain a caregiver's license, a person must complete a background check and have no prior felony drug offenses. A caregiver can grow up to six plants per patient. Patients must obtain recommendations from a licensed physician stating that marijuana is a good course of treatment. Valid medical conditions include: cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, cachexia or wasting syndrome, severe or chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, severe or persistent muscle spasms. The recommendations are then sent to the state and the Department of Public Health and Human Services for final approval. Once a patient has a user card, he can have up to one ounce on his person at any time. He must apply for the card, giving personal information and then renewing on a yearly basis. The list of names is confidential. Patients can grow six of their own plants, but Are recommended to have a provider. One physician in Havre is licensed to recommend medical marijuana but has not done so as of yet, said Dustin Malley, a provider. In the state, 175 physicians can recommend marijuana to patients, and the closest physician actively doing so is in Great Falls, he added. Because marijuana is not recognized as a legal substance at a federal level, drug stores can not distribute it, Trethewey said. "It's all the legal loopholes," she said. Zoning can help regulate the availability of providers, Allen "Woody" Woodwick, a committee member, said. "We don't put drug stores in the middle of residential areas," he said. Concerns raised Many people who spoke, agreed that medical marijuana is warranted in certain situations, but that it should be regulated. Georgina Kaftan said that she feels bad for the committee having to deal with the state law's fallout. "But I think that as a community what we are asking is that whatever restrictions you can put on this to keep it regulated, we would really appreciate," she said. She continually brought up that pharmacies are able to regulate the distribution of prescription medications, where it seems more difficult to regulate the distribution of marijuana. "I just want to make this very clear, that this is a medication," Zack Jones, a caregiver in Havre, said. Several people who spoke shared concerns about youth being exposed to marijuana, especially near schools and other public areas. Under the Montana Medical Marijuana Act, patients can not smoke in any form of public transportation, including school buses, on any school grounds, in any correctional facility or at any public park, recreation center or youth center. The Clean Indoor Air Act that went into effect in October would ban smoking of marijuana in any business or public building, as well, Trethewey said. Another concern was the exposure of children in private homes to marijuana. No restraints are listed for people in private homes, other than the stipulations of the law limiting amounts. Limiting what a person can and can not do in their own home is not something that the committee wants to get into, Brekke said. However, the city can regulate businesses, he added. Parents who use marijuana should educate their children about the drug and tell them that they are not to use it, just like they would if they used insulin or a prescription drug, Malley said, adding that he's a parent and wants to protect his children, as well. Rules are in place to limit access to marijuana, said Brad Sangray. "But the rules are not always followed," he said. Others questioned the safety of residents near where operations are located. Amanda Kaftan said that she's not comfortable knowing that a marijuana operation is near churches, schools and houses where families live. Home value alone is a reason to keep operations out of residential areas, said Kathy Sangray. It would be difficult to sell a home after telling a potential buyer what the people next door use their house for, she said, especially if children are involved. People might break into places where they know marijuana is being grown, said Mark Stolen, a retired law enforcement agent. If the plants are in a residential area, the perpetrators might get the wrong house, he said, adding that a situation like that might not happen every time, but that it is a possibility. "So I encourage you to talk to your local law enforcement," he told committee members. "So that you have safety for the providers as well as the citizens." Jones said that generally the grow operation and the distribution operation are kept as separate as possible to limit instances like the one Stolen described. Two zoning requirements might be necessary, he said. Water and electricity use also was a topic during the meeting. Trethewey said that there is concern that grow operations without proper wiring could cause fires. "We don't want somebody burning their house down because they're not doing something that's safe," she said. Havre Fire Chief Dave Sheppard said this morning that there haven't been any issues with grow operations. Business inspections are done annually to ensure that buildings are up to code, he said. Private residences are not inspected, but Sheppard said that he does not think that the growing of six marijuana plants would be more dangerous than everyday household activities like cooking or raising indoor plants. Caregivers already providing to area residents One of the area's caregivers, Malley, shared that he has 18 patients, including himself. He uses organic materials to grow 90 plants, even though by law, he could grow 108. Between Sunday and Tuesday afternoon, he was able to gather more than 300 signatures from area residents in support of medical marijuana. He said that several people were scared to sign because of its not being socially acceptable. One of his patients is 72 years old and going through a second bout with cancer. Because of receiving medical marijuana, the patient has been able to reduce intake of other addictive drugs and other medications like antidepressants, Malley said. His patients are scared that if they can no longer obtain their marijuana in town, they will have to travel several hours, he said. He said that high usage of water and electricity is not an issue with his grow operation because he has had everything properly wired and set up so that it runs at peak efficiency. His business is in a commercial intermediate zoning area, he said, adding that he purposefully bought the property to allow him to have his business there. He doesn't want to distribute marijuana to patients near schools, he said, although he said that growing it is not much different than growing any other herb. Enforcement Committee member Pam Hillery said that she's surprised that operations exist in Havre. There have been no perceivable negative effects so far, she said, while alcohol seems to her to be a bigger problem with youth in the area. "Let's take this in context," she said. The committee hopes to get ahead of the curve on the issue, Trethewey said. A provider does not have to register anywhere but with the state, said Pete Federspiel, supervisor of the Tri-Agency Safe Trails Drug Task Force. His agency does not have a list of registered providers, and if a name arises during an investigation, agents call the state and ask if it is a sanctioned operation or not, he said. Where some cities limit the number of patients a caregiver can service, Fiederspiel said he would like to have the area where operations can be located limited. "I think it would help us greatly," he said. Limiting the number of providers also would help with making sure that all the rules are followed, he said. If there are fewer providers, they tend to be more legitimate, he said. Regardless of how legitimate a provider is, patients can still break the rules, though, he added. If a patient is selling, bartering or even giving part of their medicine away, he can be prosecuted for distribution, he said. Four cases of distribution by patients are pending, he added. Patients must have their user cards on their person at all times, and if they are smoking without it, they can still be charged, said Gabe Matosich, Havre Police Department's assistant chief of operations. "It's so new right now we haven't had many issues with it yet," he said. For more information about medical marijuana in the state, visit www.dphhs.mt.gov or attend the next committee meeting, Tuesday, March 16, at 5:15 p.m. in City Hall.
Medical marijuana here to stay, zoning can regulate
Published: Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010
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