After the passage of an emergency ordinance by Havre City Council Monday, no medical marijuana grow operations or dispensary operators have stepped forward to self-register with the city. The ordinance placed a moratorium on new medical marijuana operations in the city for six months but also grandfathered existing businesses, with the provision that they register within 10 business days after its passage and not expand operations. According to www.dphhs.mt.gov, 19 caregivers are registered to operate in Hill County. It is unclear how many of those are in Havre. Caregivers are being asked to provide the location of their business and the number of patients currently served by them to the front window in City Hall. "We're kind of relying on the fact that those that are maintaining a legitimate business and ... want to follow the rules," said Janet Trethewey, the chairperson of the Planning and Development Committee that worked to create the ordinance. "Technically, because marijuana is not listed in any of the zoning codes, they would have to get a variance (to open)," she said about new operations, meaning that it would be difficult for them to slip in under the radar. If there is reason to believe that an operation has not registered with the city, is serving less or more patients than reported, has more plants per patient than allowed by state law, or is illegally distributing the product, Havre police officers can step in and enforce the ordinance. Operators found in violation will be charged with a misdemeanor catch-all penalty with a fine up to $500 and up to six months in jail. "I don't foresee any issues with (enforcing the ordinance)," Police Chief Jerry Nystrom said, but he said that issues pop up over time. "But we'll just deal with it as we go." A noticeable increase in complaints since medical marijuana became a Hot-button topic in Havre several months ago has not occurred, Nystrom said. "But as we continue to investigate cases, more cases turn out to be individuals who were illegal last week, but this week they have their medical marijuana card," he said. "It takes more man power, more time, or draws away, when you actually investigate something, and it turns out to be somebody with a medical marijuana card," he said. Some incidents involving break-ins at patient homes have also occurred, he said. "There's no set pattern. It's sporadic," he said. Investigating complaints is important to make sure that people do in fact have green cards, he said. "Don't assume that somebody has medical marijuana authority," he said, adding that people should report complaints regardless. "It's going to be investigated because we don't want anything slipping through the cracks." Breathing room The ordinance gives the city six months to come up with a more permanent solution. "At this time, I think it's the best thing to do," Mayor Tim Solomon said about the moratorium. "It's a step in the right direction, anyhow." "The idea is that we have six months to figure out how Havre is going to zone medical marijuana operations within the city limits," Trethewey said. During the next six months, the city will look at zoning issues in general and determine where medical marijuana operations fit into the larger print of the city. Some uses of areas have changed over time, Trethewey said. "Years ago when Havre was smaller, that outside edge was commercial," she said. Now, the residential areas have expanded and pushed the commercial areas further out from the city center. Also, some of the roughly 100 properties annexed by the city from the county are zoned with classifications that the city doesn't have. Either those classifications will have to be equated with a city class or the city wi l l have to add classes, Trethewey said. Shaping a permanent solution "Legislation needs to turn it around, and it needs to not be legal, period," Nystrom said, suggesting that pharmacies could sell THC, the active component of marijuana, in pill form and that would create a more controlled environment of distribution. "I would like to see that side of it," he said. There are problems controlling prescription medications, too, though, he said. "So it's like a cat chasing its tail," he said. "I don't know where it's going to end." The state Legislature should close loopholes to make getting a green card more difficult, he said. "The biggest thing for me would be to have stricter requirements on what makes you eligible for medical marijuana," he said. Valid uses are specific and reasonable, he said. "But to leave it open-ended ... that's too broad," he said, adding that maladies like chronic pain are too unquantifiable. Regardless of what the state does, people in the community have spoken in favor of regulation at the city level. Zoning is one way to do that, Trethewey said. Limiting the areas where operations can be located would help the police monitor them, Nystrom said. Community feedback Meetings during which how best to regulate medical marijuana has been discussed have been heavily attended, and many in attendance have spoken on both sides of the issue. Many, mostly caregivers and patients, have spoken in favor of medical marijuana, while many others have voiced their opinion that it should be illegal. Regardless of what end of the spectrum or what point in between people are, most have agreed that regulation is necessary. Sixty-two percent of Montana voters approved a voter initiative legalizing medical marijuana in 2004. The growth of use was slow until a few months ago, when applications for caregivers and patient registrations began to rise almost exponentially. A group of approximately 30 volunteers is working to find out how people in Havre feel about medical marijuana now. "We wanted to know what the public about it, and if they felt strong enough to actually sign and give their address," Rip Steckel, who is helping to circulate the petition, said. "They feel like they've been duped," he said about the people he has spoken with who voted for the legalization of medical marijuana. "If these individuals who were getting it were cancer patients and it was a stimulateto- eat program, it has a place," he said. "But it's gotten out of control." He would like the Legislature to ban medical marijuana, he said, although he added that he realizes that is unlikely. The City Council did the right thing by creating the moratorium, he said, and has taken into account concerns brought before them. "The City Council accomplished what I wanted to see, and that was a freeze on more individuals coming into our community," he said. "I think most bases are covered" by the moratorium, he added. "I think we have a good handle on it." The more than 200 signees so far of the petition listing several concerns with medical marijuana, have all said they don't want operations near their homes, Steckel said. "There's really no place for this in the community," he said. "I think that we could have a better community," he said. "I think that the community could be pretty much free of this stuff if we as the adults ... take a stand on these issues and present it to the next generation as something we don't want in our community." For the length of the moratorium, the volunteers will be speaking to residents of the city and keeping a tally of those in favor of medical marijuana and those against it. Action should be taken now before the issue comes to a head, Steckel said. "We need to attack this issue right now in order to send ideas to legislators to, if we can't get rid of it, to at least control it or to make it so safe that we don't have to worry about our kids getting it," he said. Council members are listening to community feedback, Solomon said. "Or they wouldn't have adopted the moratorium at this time, and so I think they are taking steps forward and will be continuing," he said. Trethewey said that the committee as well as the council has taken citizen concerns into account and will continue to do so. At the same time, "it's a little bit frustrating when 62 percent of the voters ... voted for the passage of the Medical Marijuana Act, and yet, all we're hearing is 'no, no, no,'" she said. "We're not getting both sides of the story." People have stopped her on the street and contacted her other ways, and that's something she wants to continue. "I would really like for people to come to the meetings, give us a call, shoot us an e-mai l — just whatever, " Trethewey said. "I think people are very concerned about some of the fallout," she added, "but I'm not convinced that everyone thinks that it should be outright banned."
City med marijuana moratorium passes, now what?
Published: Monday, May 17th, 2010
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