Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing public health concerns, the Missoula City Council on Monday night adopted a resolution placing a moratorium on accepting new business licenses for recreation pot dispensaries and set a public hearing for several other issues on the matter.

On an 8-3, council approved the temporary moratorium and called for a review of public health concerns regarding the large number of marijuana dispensaries in the city. While public health officials have said a city the size of Missoula should have between five to 12 dispensaries, the city is currently home to 51 businesses.

Another eight are in the pipeline for approval. Missoula ranks near the top nationally in its number of pot dispensaries per capita.

“This is a temporary moratorium on business licenses – not a permanent one – to get our zoning in place. That conversation will happen this fall via code reform,” said council member Gwen Jones. “We went from zero recreational dispensaries and now we have 51. We need to focus on what we can control until the community gets up to speed on this issue and parents and families become more aware of it.”

Health professionals over the past few weeks have worked to dispel myths that marijuana is a “safe” drug. The content of THC has increased many times from the pot found in the past, leading one council member to suggest that “this isn’t the marijuana of yesteryear.”

The availability of recreational pot, the large number of local dispensaries and its easy access by youth has had dire health impacts, officials have said. Youth who are using are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis-use disorder than adults. The average age of initiation for marijuana use in Missoula is roughly 13.

According to the Montana Hospital Association and the Center for Population Health at the University of Montana, emergency room encounters and hospitalizations for marijuana disorders have increased 32% for teens under 20 in just a few years.

“The impacts of that are significant,” Jacqueline Cline, a prevention specialist told the City Council last week. “It’s related to anxiety, major depressive disorder, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and psychosis. In terms of the physical health effects, we’re seeing issues with respiratory function and cognitive impairment.”

Those concerns led the City Council to unanimously vote to set a public hearing to review the deeper public health impacts of the product and its availability to youth, despite it being restricted to those over the age of 21.

But three council members opposed the temporarily moratorium on approving new business licenses for recreational dispensaries.

“I feel like an immediate moratorium is unfair to those businesses who put the time, energy and money into starting their business and are in the final lap of getting permission from the city,” said council member Sandra Vasecka.

Those applications in the pipeline will be grandfathered in and the city will continue to accept applications through July 8, city officials said.

Council member Kristen Jordan expressed concerns over the “black market” while council member Daniel Carlino suggested the city should limit other “harmful businesses,” particularly those that “contribute to climate change.” Last week he suggested that included car washes and gas stations.

“If we’re going to start changing the market for things like this, we should look at doing it in a positive way for other things like limiting businesses that are causing the climate crisis, or possibly limiting other businesses that are harmful to the community,” Carlino said again on Monday night.

Monday night’s vote sets a public hearing for July 8 on an ordinance amending city code to add a section enacting the prohibition on new business licenses, pending further review of code reform. It also sets a hearing to establishing a new chapter on restrictions and sale of weed to minors, including new criminal sanctions.

But one member of the public suggested the city was netting a 3% tax on pot sales and the city should keep that going, adding that “it’s a good thing to have more dispensaries.” He also suggested the city does nothing to regulate the number of liquor and casino businesses in town and has turned a blind eye to DUI offenses.

“We have no problem endorsing massive culturally endorsed drinking events, like Griz (football) games. What does that say about the fiscal responsibility of the people we’ve elected in this room?” the individual suggested.

But council member Mike Nugent pushed back on the comment for its falsities.

“The state actually does limit licenses for beer, wine, liquor and casinos,” That’s in fact a correct statement,” Nugent said. “And we do actually have a dedicated DUI officer. It was funded in our budget last year. Those are both things that do exist.”

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