Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Zoning restrictions for medical marijuana dispensaries in Hardin are pictured using radius-drawing software designed by engineer Oliver Beattie. According to Hardin City Code, no dispensaries may be located within 300 feet of a residential area or 1,000 feet of “any type of school or public playground.” When using the map for reference, this means that no dispensary may reside within one of the blue circles or within 300 feet of one of the houses.Hardin City Code zoning restrictions shut out the majority of Hardin’s downtown commercial district from possible use by medical marijuana dispensaries.A gloved hand holds a piece of marijuana concentrate, which Elevated LLC had tested in a lab to maintain proper dosage for their clients.

Zoned out

Medical marijuana dispensary expelled from Hardin
Medical marijuana dispensaries aren’t banned in Hardin, but city zoning regulations have suceeded in doing just that, according to Elevated LLC owner Matt Martin. Recently, he was forced to shutter his business’ Hardin location – which “was on an upswing” with about 50 clients – when he couldn’t find a spot for the dispensary deemed in compliance with city law.
 
 
Having laws for dispensaries, Martin believes, “mandates patient access.” According to an email by City Planner Cal Cumin, he has not analyzed land use and zoning in Hardin to determine if such an access point exists.
 
Martin’s clients – many of whom suffer from chronic pain – were upset to see Elevated close, he said, “because for a lot of them, it drastically improved their quality of life.” Some of his clients don’t have the means to drive 45 miles to the Elevated headquarters in neighboring Yellowstone County, he continued, and those who do “are forced to incur extra costs to get what the people of Billings [can buy] on a regular basis.”
 
Hardin City Code states that, as of July 2010, no dispensaries may be located within 1,000 straight line feet of “any type of school or public playground” – more than three times the distance Montana Code requires for the residence of a high-risk sex offender. Dispensaries also must be located 300 feet from residentially zoned areas.
 
As the City-County Planning Board worked out rules for dispensaries during the months of May and June 2010, the Big Horn County News reported varied responses from the public.
 
“With medical marijuana comes violence and vandalism,” stated Jason Feller, then owner of Mojoes Coffee Shop, who lobbied for increased distances between dispensaries and residential areas. “This kind of business is meant for the industrial park.”
 
“I think it would add positive commerce to the town,” stated Terri Noland, who had wanted to open a dispensary with her husband Ron. “The sick people also need to be considered. They need to have their dignity instead of having to meet someone in a parking lot somewhere [to obtain marijuana].”
 
In a May 2010 issue of the News, former Planning Board member Carla Colstad stated the rules were not intended to legislate the industry out of the city. Rather, she continued, “The main thing is to get it out there that it’s a violation for that business to be in a residential area.”
 
Dispensaries, Colstad believed, could be located downtown. Due to zoning complications, this method didn’t work for Martin.
 
With the 1,000-foot boundary that includes area daycares and the Big Horn County Library (which hosts programs for children), dispensaries are shut out from most of Hardin’s downtown commercial district. At the city’s main economic hub along North Center Avenue in particular, the boundary edges into 11 of 13 total intersections.
 
“When you look at…all the educational establishments in town, that really does narrow it down,” Hardin Mayor Jack Lane said. “There really aren’t any good commercial locations for a business like that in Hardin.”
 
Like Martin, resident Karen Stanton encountered this issue in October when she tried to allow a dispensary to operate on her property across the street from the city’s residentially zoned post office. On Nov. 13, the Planning Board made no decision on whether to recommend a variance for Stanton’s property, as she hadn’t filled out the required paperwork.
 
One day later, Martin received a letter from Lane stating Elevated was out of compliance according to city zoning laws. That afternoon, Martin moved out of his location on Crawford Avenue – formerly used by the Patio restaurant and Mythical Glass smoking pipe shop – and searched unsuccessfully for a new place of operations.
 
Elevated technically was situated just outside city limits, but as explained by Lane’s letter, it was “within the one mile radius that the City is allowed to zone.” Martin disagrees with this “doughnut of enforcement,” especially since the former Elevated location didn’t receive city services, but he expressed no desire to file a lawsuit against Hardin. He hadn’t realized his business was outside compliance, he continued, and wrote an apology letter to the city.
 
According to Lane, he was unaware that Elevated was operating in Hardin until the business began publishing advertisements in the newspaper starting Nov. 9. The Montana Medical Marijuana Act states dispensaries “may not advertise marijuana or marijuana-related products in any medium.” Lane’s letter states such advertising includes the fact that Martin’s business had a sign at the front of the building.
 
“I know they’re in a tough spot, because rules are rules,” Martin said. “But we would like just a little bit of consideration in the sensibility of those rules. What would they rather have, a known professional operator or to continue on with the black market that services the people in need right now?”
 
Elevated had established its satellite location in Hardin sometime around August and, according to Martin, was adding about two to three customers per week to its roster. People looking to manage pain make up his main base, he said, though marijuana also can be used to treat chronic illness, seizures, glaucoma and nausea from cancer chemotherapy.
 
Elevated’s website states those who obtain a Montana Marijuana Program card have access to a variety of their products including plants, caramels and salves. Clients, it states, can be connected “with doctors experienced with the benefits of medical marijuana.”
 
The National Institute on Drug Abuse states marijuana also is known for producing a “high” that alters one’s senses, mood and sense of time. In larger doses, it may cause dangerous side effects including hallucinations, delusions and psychosis. Among teenagers, the site states, “the drug may impair thinking, memory and learning functions.”
 
Dr. Earl Sutherland, chief of clinical operations at Bighorn Valley Health Center in Hardin, is aware that marijuana has medical uses, but is more familiar “with the consequences of substance misuse.” There is a growing body of evidence, he said, that clearly indicates marijuana use can lead to early-onset mental illness with harsher symptoms in those who are “genetically vulnerable.”
 
Sutherland believes medical marijuana has the potential to benefit a community if prescribed by a health center with “evidence-based treatments.” Those who use the drug, he said, need to be monitored and their intake controlled. Otherwise, he continued, patients might fall into the same patterns that led to the rise in opioid abuse across the United States.
 
Big Horn County, he noted, is known for “multiple instances and multiple types of substance misuse.”
 
“In my view, the drawbacks or negative potential [of a dispensary] are much greater than the positive,” Sutherland said. “It’s very hard to control things, even with the best of intentions.”
 
The subject of medical marijuana, Lane said, also contains “a political dimension” potential dispensaries must take into account. He and other members of city government said they have been approached by residents opposed to dispensaries.
 
“A lot of people don’t want a business like that in the city,” Lane said, “whether the state says it’s legal or not.”
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