BILLINGS — Billings city staff met for a public forum to discuss local marijuana policy at the Billings Public Library Wednesday night, as the state rapidly approaches the start of recreational marijuana sales at the start of the new year.
The forum was an opportunity for many in the audience, who were dispensary owners, to have a more candid discussion with city staff, without the formality and timed three-minute time period during formal city council meetings.
The forum group got a first look at a draft zoning regulations regarding marijuana businesses that will be headed to the City Council for a first reading on Oct. 25.
The proposed ordinance calls for a 600-foot separation between marijuana dispensaries and schools, public parks with playgrounds and churches. It also lines out the zoning districts that dispensaries can operate in: Heavy commercial, corridor mixed use one and two, along with light and heavy industrial.
The council has the authority to change those draft regulations at its next meeting.
The city is in on a time table to get laws governing marijuana businesses on the books before medical dispensaries in good standing with the state can start selling recreational marijuana to adults over the age of 21.
The ordinances are effective 30 days after they are signed into law, effectively making the start of December the deadline for city staff and the City Council.
The discussion of recreational storefronts in the city limits could become a moot point after the Nov. 2 election, where Billings voters have the option to prohibit recreational dispensaries from the city.
The election will also decide if Yellowstone County and its cities will receive any share of tax revenue from sales. Yellowstone County voters are to decide whether to tax the sale of recreational marijuana at 3 percent in the election.
That 3 percent tax gets distributed between the county and its cities.
Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said it's estimated the city will earn between $250,000 and $350,000 per year in marijuana sales tax revenue after five years.
Kukulski said the tax money is only a drop in the bucket of what it will take to enforce. Kukulski said DUIs are expected to increase after recreational sales open up.
"Very labor intensive to have a well-trained police officer (who) will need to be the one to conduct the sobriety test and be able to document that and ultimately testify in a court of law as to why it is that they felt that the individual was in fact under the influence of some type of marijuana, or other drug that's not easily tested," Kukulski said.
At a City Council work session coming up next Monday, Kukulski said the Council will likely tackle the issue of caps on the total number of dispensaries, caps on the potency of marijuana and the process for obtaining a marijuana business license.